Animal Assisted Counselling

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment that has been found to hold various mental and physical benefits. Animal-assisted counselling (AAC) is a particularly effective form of AAT, as it combines the use of animals with counselling techniques to help individuals address mental health issues. AAC involves a trained therapist working with a specially trained animal, such as a dog, cat, or horse, to assist clients achieve their therapeutic goals. During AAC sessions, the animal is typically present with the client and therapist and may be used in a variety of ways to support the therapeutic process. For example, the animal may be used to help the client feel more comfortable and relaxed, or to help them develop new coping skills. This article will briefly explore the effectiveness of Animal Assisted Counselling in various therapeutic contexts.

The Psychological Benefits of Animal Assisted Counselling

AAC has been proven to be particularly effective when utilised in the treatment of stress and anxiety. Research has shown that spending time with animals can have a calming effect on the body and mind, reducing stress and anxiety levels. This can be particularly helpful for individuals who struggle with anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

AAC has also been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of depression. A study conducted at the University of Missouri found that AAC was effective in reducing symptoms of depression in elderly adults. The study involved elderly adults who were living in a long- term care facility. The participants were randomly assigned to either an AAC group or a control group. The results showed that the AAC group had significantly lower levels of depression than the control group.

Additionally, AAC can play a significantly beneficial role in combatting symptoms of depression. A supportive study conducted on a cohort of elderly residents of a long-term care facility randomly assigned residents to one of two groups, one receiving Animal Assisted Therapy, and the other regular support (control group). The researchers found a significant benefit in reducing depression in the group who received AAC.

Physical Benefits

In addition to its mental health benefits, AAC has also been shown to have multiple physical health benefits such as reducing heart rate and blood pressure, particularly helpful in individuals with hypertension.

With as little as 12 minutes exposure to physical contact with interactive dog assisted therapy, individuals with hypertension have been found to have a significant lowering effect on both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as well as their heart rate. Further, when compared to traditional talk therapy, AAC can be more effective in treating individuals with chronic pain conditions, not only in reducing the experienced pain levels, but also in improving the quality-of-life scores of individuals.

AAC has in recent years been tried and tested in various settings. One of these include the use of AAC to assist in the rehabilitation of substance use disorders, where the impact of AAC has been found to play a multi-dimensional role. Firstly, studies have found that the stress and anxiety reducing effects of AAC plays a significant role in reducing the triggers that often precedes the use of substances. In addition, individuals involved in these studies also reported that AAC induced a greater sense of companionship and support, which is particularly important for individuals who may feel isolated and lacking in social connection.

A study conducted at the University of Missouri further illustrated that AAC was effective in reducing anxiety levels in women with various eating disorders, contributing to the effective resolution of stress related symptoms and eating patterns.

Animal Assisted Counselling in the Treatment of Various Conditions

Perhaps one of the aspects of AAC that has been extensively studies is the profound role that it can play when working with individuals that have Autism Spectrum Disorder. Various studies have shown how utilisation of AAC reduces anxiety levels in children with ASD, leading to less rigidity, better communication, and higher levels of overall functioning.

A study involving children aged between 6 and 12 years of age showed that AAC were definitely more effective in treating some difficulties of ASD when compared to therapy that did not involve the assistance of animals. The research shows that AAC can effectively facilitate improvements in social skills and communication in individuals with ASD.

Similarly, AAC is used to effectively assist in stress and anxiety reduction in the treatment of individuals effected by trauma histories and can be an effective alternative to talk therapy alone as it facilitates a sense of safety and comfort that encourages individuals to share their experiences more easily and with less distress. This has been found to be particularly relevant in the treatment of war veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, showing reduced symptom scores than veterans treated with talk therapy alone.

In a therapeutic setting, mental health professionals are often challenged to engage children and adolescents in therapeutic methods. A study by the University of Tennessee found that implementing Animal Assisted Interventions in the therapeutic process was effective in eliminating these challenges and improves engagement and communication in this cohort significantly. Additional supporting studies found that using these methods also facilitates the formation of a good therapeutic relationship in a timely manner, not only in children but in all age groups, often eliminating communication barriers that some clients may experience and creates a sense of openness and support to access and share their thoughts and experiences.

This method of providing counselling has been shown by extensive studies to hold a definitely beneficial value in various settings, and with growing scientific research supporting its effectiveness and benefits, the facilitation and training of Animal Assisted Intervention has become available in many countries and is becoming more widely accessible.

Note: To find out more about how to access AAC in South Africa, contact the author OR Paws 4 U Therapy Dogs.

The Author: Linda-May Roodt (Humanitas Intern)

Here is a little bit more about her: 

As a counsellor with a master’s degree in Psychology and over 5 years of experience as a parenting consultant, I am dedicated to helping individuals and families navigate the complexities of modern life. With a warm and empathetic approach, I like to combine a deep understanding of human behaviour and psychology with a wealth of practical knowledge and experience to provide effective and evidence-based counselling.

With a focus on holistic wellness in treating a range of modern-day challenges, I have worked with individuals and families from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures, both domestically and abroad. This broad range of experience has given me unique insights into the challenges faced by people in different parts of the world and has helped to deepen my understanding of the complexities of human relationships and interactions.

Whether you have suffered trauma or you’re struggling with stress or anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, relationship issues, or coping with any other difficulty, I would be keen to help. With a commitment to ongoing professional development, I’m committed to stay up-to-date with the latest research and best practices in counselling, ensuring that I can provide you with the most effective support and guidance.