When asked to describe a therapy session, what often comes to mind is the classic Hollywood “ah-ha!” breakthrough; that classic moment in the therapist’s office when you’re talking at the ceiling about your feelings while resting on a chaise lounge, and the therapist behind you finally reveals the solution to all your problems.

Unfortunately, therapy doesn’t quite work that way in reality. And for many people who are struggling with trauma or just don’t quite understand the motivations behind their own actions, traditional therapy can be challenging and intimidating.

Sometimes, what’s needed the most is peaceful, quiet interactions with animals to help you work through your internal thoughts and feelings before you go into an individual or group therapy session.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal assisted therapy is a form of therapeutic intervention where an animal like a dog or horse is incorporated into the treatment process. Animal assisted therapy sessions are supervised by a health care professional who has the expertise and knowledge to manage human-animal interactions.

The therapist or health care professional you’re working with will guide you through the animal assisted therapy sessions and instruct you on how to behave with the animal. These sessions are designed to help you relax and make you feel safe and comfortable, so it’s important to inform your health care professional if you’re anxious around animals or don’t feel safe.

What Happens During Animal Assisted Therapy?

Your experience with animal assisted therapy will vary depending on the animal you’re working with:

Dog Therapy: In some cases, animal assisted therapy will be more of a passive exercise. For example, a dog may sit with you during individual or group therapy sessions to help lower your stress and anxiety levels. Petting a dog and just being near one can help you feel at ease enough to open up during traditional therapy sessions.

Equine Therapy: Therapy sessions with a horse are typically more active than dog therapy interactions. In equine therapy, you’ll work with a trained equine therapist, a horse and its handler. You’ll participate in activities that are designed to help you gain insights about your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors based on how the horse responds to you and mirrors your actions. You’ll then discuss the insights you gain with your therapist to help you get to the bottom of your addiction and/or mental health challenges.

5 Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy for Addiction and Mental Health Disorders

At Fountain Hills Recovery, we offer equine therapy and animal assisted therapy as part of our addiction and mental health treatment approach because of how valuable these therapies are to our clients. Animal assisted therapy offers countless benefits to those suffering from addiction and mental health disorders, including:

1. Improved Pain Management and Immune Health. The simple act of petting a dog can lower cortisol levels, which means it can aid in pain management. This is beneficial for those who are suffering from trauma or struggling with chronic pain that led to an opioid addiction. Animal assisted therapy can even provide a boost to the immune system, a necessity for those who have poor immune health due to alcohol or drug abuse.

2. Improved Self Worth. Do you seem to feel lighter and happier after petting a dog? That’s because this type of interaction triggers a feel-good response in your body. Research like this 2003 study have found evidence that interacting with a dog can trigger the release of oxytocin and dopamine, which help to improve your mood and make you feel better about yourself.

3. Increased Focus and Attention. The nervousness and anxiety you feel in individual and group therapy sessions may make it hard for you to concentrate and pay attention. Animal assisted therapy can help distract you from your self-deprecating thoughts or depressed feelings and help you clear your mind for when you do enter an individual or group therapy session.

4. Greater Understanding of Thoughts and Feelings. When you feel better and can approach treatment with a clearer mind, you can more easily break down the thoughts and feelings you have on a regular basis. With experiences like equine therapy that are designed to help you gain deeper self-awareness, you’ll be able to communicate those insights in traditional therapy, dissect them with your therapist and figure out how to move forward during recovery.

5. Decreased Impulsivity. As mentioned earlier, horses have an ability to mirror your behaviors and help you gain insight into your own feelings and actions. This type of animal assisted therapy can help you learn more about your destructive behaviors and improve your decision-making, which can ultimately aid your relationships as you rebuild them during treatment and recovery.

Animal Assisted Therapy at Fountain Hills Recovery

At Fountain Hills Recovery, we understand that traditional therapies like individual and group therapy aren’t always enough to help you recover from addiction and mental health disorders. That’s why we offer experiential therapies like animal assisted therapy and equine therapy. These activities during treatment give you a break from traditional, human-to-human interactions so you can engage in relaxing and peaceful experiences that can benefit your mind, body and spirit.

Ready to learn more about our holistic approach to addiction and mental health treatment? Contact our expert staff today to get started.