Being with animals has a positive effect on mental well-being. Playing or spending time with dogs, cats or horses, for example, can help people find peace and distance from stressful everyday life. Sometimes animals become soul mates with whom deep needs can be shared. Animal-assisted therapy makes use of all these beneficial aspects of being with animals.
In animal-assisted therapy, the animal is the co-therapist. This means that the animal supports the therapist and is included by the therapist in the process. The responsibility for the therapy process remains in human hands. The human-animal team must be very well attuned to each other. If dogs are used as therapy companions, they must even undergo special training – more on this later.
The animal as a complement to the therapy process
The professional groups that often work with animals include psychotherapists, occupational therapists, pedagogues, special educators, nursing staff and speech therapists. In all of these professions, the focus is on interacting with people who face special challenges in life. The inclusion of the animal provides variety, fun and always gives new occasions for communication. But why is animal-assisted therapy so significant, especially in psychotherapy?
Animal-assisted therapy has proven to be particularly effective in the treatment of mental illness. Here animals can actively support the recovery process. For example, the most common mental illness – depression – is usually accompanied by a loss of all joy and listlessness. The contact with animals can conjure up a first smile on the face here and intuitively animate to activities. Often, the contact with the animal gives rise to discussions from which therapy steps can be derived. In child and adolescent psychotherapy, it even happens that the patient initially communicates exclusively with the animal and only gradually opens up to the therapist.
Animals love unconditionally
Mental illness often leads to a lowered self-esteem. Affected persons ask themselves whether they are “right” at all, as they are. These self-doubts often lead to isolation and contact difficulties. Therapy animals can be very healing here, because they enjoy every form of contact and, if treated properly, show their love without reservation. Appearances also play no role in contact with animals – the animal accepts the person as is.
Animals as role models for a life in the here and now
Training in mindfulness – that is, being present in the here and now – has proven to be an important pillar of therapy for mental illness. Animals are the best example of such presence: they neither dwell on the past nor worry about the future. Their experience is always determined only by the immediate moment. Thus, the animal can be an anchor in the here and now, making it easier for the patient to focus on the moment and let go of negative thoughts and feelings.
The dog is especially often used as a co-therapist. This is also due to the fact that he is one of the most common pets. But many other characteristics make the dog the perfect therapy companion. For example, dogs are very sensitive to the mood of the other person. They are able to mirror the emotional states of their counterpart, but also to regulate them. Thus, dogs are restless when the human is restless and relaxed when the human is relaxed. However, a trained therapy dog will also “tolerate” when the counterpart is anxious, tense, and emotionally self-conscious. He still engages in the interaction and can alleviate anxiety and stress.
Other interactions with a therapy dog
Dogs love to interact with people and enjoy being petted. That alone can be very beneficial for people with mental illness. In addition, dogs can learn commands that the patient can practice with the dog. This strengthens the patient’s self-efficacy and is simply fun! Of course, the dog must be suitable for use as a therapy companion dog and must also be specially trained. He must be sociable, open-minded and equally well behaved, so that a safe cooperation between the therapist, the dog and the patient is possible.
Animal assisted activity
Sometimes it is already beneficial to spend time with animals in nature. Here, walks with horses, donkeys, alpacas or llamas are ideal. For patients with listlessness, this can be a great motivator to get out and get some fresh air. Taking an animal for a walk is experienced as a task that almost anyone with mental illness can do well. In this way, animals gently bring patients out of their retreat and boost their self-confidence without making any great demands on their performance.
A deep connection can form between people and animals that can hardly be put into words. Almost everyone likes to be surrounded by animals. Thus, animal-assisted therapy can sustainably promote the healing process or the development of people. In summary, animal-assisted therapy has the following goals:
At LIMES Schlossklinik Fürstenhof, we offer animal-assisted therapy and activities for our patients. Find out more at the reception desk.