Canine Therapy For Addiction

Canine Therapy_

Canine therapy is a form of animal-assisted therapy that utilizes dogs as therapeutic animals. This practice is growing in popularity due to the ways in which this interaction benefits the client and aids in therapeutic alliance within each session. The presence of the animal can help a person to relax and become more open with their therapist. It may also incite them to speak freely of their experiences while examining their emotional and mental states more thoroughly. Canine therapy helps to increase wellbeing, confidence, introspection and motivation, while decreasing stress, anxiety and depression. Used together with other treatment modalities, canine therapy is a positive and beneficial component within addiction treatment programs.

At a time when you may feel the most vulnerable, lonely and engulfed by a sense of isolation, it may bring you comfort to spend a little time with man’s best friend. Canine therapy has been increasing in its popularity, due to its notable track record as a diverse and compassionate accompaniment within treatment programs. What is unique, is that this interaction can go beyond comfort, bringing you therapeutic value within your addiction treatment.

Addiction medicine is continuously changing, and one facet that has broadened greatly is the recognition of and pursuit for individualized care. No two people are alike, nor are the situations that precede and contribute to their addiction. Because of this, every person’s treatment plan should be developed and adapted to their specific situation. Canine therapy is one of many modalities that may be integrated into an individual’s personalized treatment plan. More and more rehab centers are becoming pet-friendly.  This warm and engaging therapy may aid a person in building acceptance and self-confidence and support them in overcoming instances of trauma and various co-occurring disorders.

What Is Canine Therapy?

Imagine for a moment a person’s life within an addiction. When they look around, they’re likely impacted by the many ways addiction has torn apart their life—once pleasurable activities are without meaning and relationships strained or non-existent. Now imagine in this time when it feels like everyone might be against you, including yourself, that an inquisitive and loyal creature comes up to you and gladly displays you affection and attention. As simple as this is, the effect may be widely impactful and is only one small facet of the profound benefit canine therapy may have within treatment.

Canine therapy is a specific form of animal-assisted therapy which engages dogs as the therapeutic animal. Often attributed to an American nurse named Elaine Smith, who worked in England, it’s reported that Ms. Smith returned to the states in 1976 and implemented a training program after witnessing the favorable results abroad, as reported by ScienceDaily.

Canine Therapy_Animal Assisted Therapy

Pet Partners, formerly the Delta Society, one of the largest organizations within the United States to certify therapy animals, offers the following definition of animal-assisted therapy: “Animal-assisted therapy is a goal oriented, planned, structured and documented therapeutic intervention directed by health and human service providers as part of their profession.”

How Does A Session Work?

Each animal in the program is thoroughly trained, most typically including both agility and obedience training. During the sessions, the animals will be accompanied by their trainers, individuals who have worked closely with each animal and fully understand the therapy process; they will be able to answer any questions during this time or instruct you should you need assistance. While these individuals may administer your therapy, most commonly, a therapist will also be present to direct and engage you through the counseling session. Rehab clients will not be forced to participate. There could be, for instance, those who are allergic to dogs or exhibit a fear of them.

Sessions vary in length, and oftentimes there may be a second animal present. During a session, participants will engage the dog(s) in several ways, including obedience work, socialization activities, and aiding a dog in navigating an agility course. Participants may also groom, walk or play with the animal, or simply pet them.

One fact that is unique about these animals is that in many instances the dogs may be rescues, having experienced neglect, trauma or maltreatment within their lives. This can become a powerful tool and a phenomenal example of change and healing, as participants, upon hearing of these past circumstances often begin to open up regarding their own painful pasts. This promotes healing and grants treatment providers a better understanding of their client’s unique history and concerns, allowing them to adapt other therapeutic methods to better serve them.

What Are The Benefits Of Canine Therapy?

By nature, dogs are attentive, accepting and comforting creatures, approaching each interaction in an unbiased and open way. This is something that can be vastly beneficial to an individual with low self-confidence who is struggling to recover from substance abuse and the chronic negativity it may impart.

Canine Therapy_Enhance Positive Feelings

One research paper explains the benefit and the role of therapy animals, asserting that “the animals themselves are the health intervention. They enhance positive feelings in people, raise oxytocin levels, encourage clients out of emotional numbness, and foster trusting and non-judgmental relationships.” Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of connectedness, a sense of bonding, relaxation and overall psychological stability; it is also purported to be involved within the formation of trust and generosity, as explained by PsychCentral—elements which may all be useful with a therapeutic setting.

In addition, canine therapy has been shown to:

  • Increase optimism
  • Promote physical activity
  • Heighten focus and awareness
  • Promote wellness
  • Balance moods
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Combat depression
  • Relieve stress
  • Decrease fatigue
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Decrease pain
  • Encourage self-confidence
  • Aid in introspection
  • Promote a sense of responsibility
  • Help to establish boundaries
  • Improve communication skills
  • Improve interpersonal skills
  • Increase positive social interactions
  • Increase motivation

Build Therapeutic Bonds: Within a therapy session, the dog may act as a neutral moderator within the conversation, initially offering a distraction for the client, allowing them to become more relaxed and comfortable, while beginning to build a rapport with their therapist. Engaging the dog within the session encourages the therapist and client to work side by side, together on a task that promotes a sense of wellbeing, focus and is, in and of itself, non-confrontational. Together, these elements may help to facilitate conversations and openness more quickly than in a traditional therapeutic setting, allowing the patient to begin accepting, changing and healing more quickly.

Canine Therapy_BenefitsAid Sociability: Research notes that animal therapy may help a person change their perspective of their social appeal, putting it in a more a more positive light, a benefit that can carry forward as a person leaves treatment, entering into their life within recovery. This may aid them in becoming more confident and open within positive social settings, such as with family, friends or within various self-help support groups.

Benefit Families: Canine therapy may also be a positive and healing component of family programs, as family members often report an enhanced sense of calm, wellbeing or happiness after sessions. The presence of the dog is often a good ice breaker and helps a family draw closer within their time together, creating an environment and attitudes that may be more conducive for constructive and positive communication with personal and familial growth.

Address Co-occurring Disorders: Canine therapy has also been shown to be effective as a form of therapy for co-occurring disorders, including various mood and behavioral disorders, anxiety and depression, or instances of trauma, neglect or abandonment which may have preceded substance abuse, making it even a more dynamic tool for individualized substance abuse treatment.

Why Does Canine Therapy Work?

Though research on the subject is still widespread, and in some ways differing, one element which is widely held, as noted within a paper lead-authored by Katherine A. Kruger, MSW, “Animal-Assisted Interventions in Mental Health: Definitions and Theoretical Foundations,” is that change is often incited by “patients being able to reveal or discuss difficult thoughts, feelings, motivations, conflicts, or events by projecting them onto a real or fictional animal.” This is to say, a person within treatment may look to an animal and personify the creature, using the dog’s presence, demeanor or reaction to certain situations as a way to initiate certain conversations on more difficult subjects, that actually speak to the client’s own personal struggles.

Canine therapy aids an individual and therapist in recognizing and developing areas that are in need of cognitive or behavioral changes. Specifically, the Kruger paper writes “Animals are thought to be uniquely helpful in providing feedback on social behavior due to their unambiguous, “honest,” and immediate responses to both pleasurable and aversive stimuli.”

Canine Therapy_Provide Feedback

Dogs are very intuitive and receptive creatures, providing fairly immediate reactions to a person’s mental and emotional states, due to the way they seem to “sense” a person’s state of mind or intentions. This aspect of animal therapy has been compared to a biofeedback machine—the dog provides real time reactions to a person’s mood. For instance, if a person becomes anxious, the dog may become more agitated or attentive, granting an individual an opportunity to become aware of their anxiety, so that they can work towards decreasing it. The dog may aid in this process, as they may become more visibly relaxed as a person’s anxiety wanes.

Cumulatively, though this field is yet progressing, canine therapy has the potential to be a viable and impactful vessel for change within an addiction treatment program.

Find Compassionate Care

If you’re interested in learning more about how you or your loved one may benefit from individualized treatment, let Turning Point share with you about our many engaging and compassionate treatment modalities. Contact us today.


ResearchGate — Animal-Assisted Interventions in Mental Health: Definitions and Theoretical Foundations
Path International — History of Animal Assisted Therapies


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