Lauren* was very reluctant to open up during therapy sessions. We knew that she had experienced trauma in her life, but she refused to elaborate on the source of the feelings she tried to numb with every substance imaginable.
For weeks, her unwillingness to speak persisted until one Thursday, when she happened to spot the therapists with their therapy dogs setting up for an upcoming group session. Her sudden change in demeanor was immediately evident – it was as if the light that she swore would never come back finally began to flicker.
She asked about an individual session with the therapy dog, and the therapist who oversaw her care agreed. In the presence of the therapy dog, this patient divulged more information in 90 minutes than she did in three weeks.
While petting and playing with the dog, she recounted her entire life story, which provided much needed clarity about her situation and how we could best help her in her recovery journey. Throughout the entire session, her attention was solely on the therapy dog.
Why pets can be therapeutic
Research has shown that incorporating animal-assisted therapy in a group setting among adults receiving treatment for a mental health condition and substance use disorder enhances the treatment process.
Science has also shown that interaction with animals leads to hormone production that greatly affects the mind and body. Two hormones in particular, oxytocin and dopamine, are essential for our mental health and are released when around animals.
Oxytocin, the “love” hormone, greatly lowers stress. There is a strong link between stress, substance use and relapse, so it’s important that our patients continue to have experiences where this hormone can be released.
Dopamine is the “happy” hormone that drives the brain’s reward system. Using substances spikes the level of dopamine in the brain and causes a sense of euphoria. It is when the dopamine levels drop that the individual feels like they need to use the substance again.
Cycling through extreme highs and lows damages dopamine receptors and people can lose the ability to feel happiness. Through interaction with a pet, a person can raise his/her dopamine levels naturally without the aid of a substance.
Furry friends help those in recovery get their life back
Pets can be beneficial to those in recovery by helping them to regain skills that may have been lost or never developed because of the person’s addiction.
- Alcohol and substance use can dull fine motor skills, cause forgetfulness and loss of memory. The simple act of stroking the dog’s fur, feeding it a small piece of food or placing a collar around its neck can help patients regain functionality lost to addiction.
- Through interacting with a pet, a person’s problem-solving skills and communication are heightened by giving the animals commands.
- Their levels of interest and focus grow, and they further foster empathy for others.
- Owning a pet instills responsibility, accountability and builds confidence to overcome addiction.
- The gratitude and unconditional love from pets is invaluable and can help those struggling maintain healthy lives in recovery.
In the times when we’ve offered pet therapy, patient feedback has been nothing short of extraordinary. The sessions motivate some to get back home to their own pets and others express a desire to own a pet after completing treatment.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, I’d love to hear your story—especially if it relates to how animals have helped the recovery journey.
Today, Lauren is approaching her first year in recovery and is already living a life she never thought possible. Lauren said that the routine she has developed is exactly what she needed to succeed, along with her new best friend, a beautiful dog named Sunny.
*Not patient’s real name
Image courtesy of Eric Ward.