Animal Assisted Therapy

A Brief History ...

The formal therapeutic research in relation to pet-facilitated therapy was championed by child psychologist Dr Boris Levinson in 1961.  He had been working with a client who was particularly withdrawn and during a period of time in which he left the client alone in the therapy room with his own dog, Jingles, he made the accidental discovery of the benefits of animal-human interaction within a therapeutic setting.  He returned to the room to find the client interacting with Jingles in a way he had been unable to do with Dr Levinson himself.  This inspired Levinson to do more research into the correlation between animals and healing, resulting in a clear correlation between the positive impact the presence of a dog has on clients in a therapeutic setting.  He later coined the term “pet therapy” in reference to this beneficial impact.  He believed that one of our main difficulties as human’s was our inability to come to terms with our inner selves, resulting in alienation of self; arguing that animals were “a half-way station on the road back to emotional wellbeing” (Levinson, 1969).

How does Animal Assisted Therapy work?

It has been well evidenced through research that interacting with an animal can have a positive impact on our physical health, helping reduce blood pressure and improving overall cardiovascular health. It can also release endorphins that produce a calming effect which then enables people to feel a sense of soothing, comfort and safety, diverting attention away from a stressful situation and toward one that provides pleasure.  For this very reason animals can enhance the therapeutic relationship by helping the client feel calm in their environment and focus attention away from what can sometimes be an extremely intense client/therapist interaction. Therapy pets in their very nature are easy to interact with, offering unconditional love and acceptance.  These qualities are harder to find and most certainly harder to trust when forming a relationship with another human being.  This natural animal-human attachment between client and animal is easily accessed when spending time together and enables the client to have fewer inhibitions when interacting than they may have trying to interact with the counsellor alone; due to past experiences, trauma, damaging relationships and mistrust.

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Helping clients develop an outward focus:

Many people who enter therapy do so because they have lived experiences that have impacted their ability to engage effectively with others or have developed diagnosable mental health conditions which prevent them living life in the way they aspire to.  Many clients enter therapy with an inward focus, being very much controlled and overwhelmed by their own experiences and conditions.  This can sometimes be addressed initially through the introduction of a therapy animal, as animals by their very nature live in the moment and exist outside of the client’s inner world.  This shifts the focus from the internal to the external and encourages interaction which can then lead to a number of skill development opportunities and an insight into how the client can be experienced and accepted without conditions being imposed.  Therapy animals help to demonstrate the impact and application of nurture and how important and enhancing this is when used positively and appropriately.  By developing an outward focus and beginning to draw the internal thoughts and feelings out into the external environment of the therapy setting, it allows the therapist to begin helping the client to address and re-frame them.

Worzel, our registered Animal Assisted Therapy dog, helps to make the children and young people we work with feel loved, accepted and cared for.  He will happily provide another pair of eyes when we're out on activities, never letting a single member of our group out of his sight and he's equally as happy to snuggle up alongside our young people when we're working indoors.  He is loved by all who meet him due to his zest for life and compliments the work we do with our young people beautifully!

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