How Animals Help You Heal
Our animal friends have the power to help us heal and cope, while also making our lives brighter.
Animals are cute, cuddly, and sweet. Whether you’re a dog or a cat person, or a horse or a pot-bellied pig person, animals some of our best friends, right? Pets are an important part of our lives, but did you know they can be helpful to your mental and emotional health and well-being? Animals offers tremendous benefits, from helping you relax, to easing anxiety and stress, to companionship and even assisting therapists. Animals have been proven to lower blood-pressure, bring out your sense of play and help prevent us from feeling lonely.
1. Dogs Help with Therapy
Dr. Alison Walker, a psychotherapist who uses dogs in her practice says the dogs are helpful both for the therapist and for clients. A dog in the room helps regulate everyone’s anxiety and helps break the ice with clients. According to Walker, animals bring joy to people who struggle to connect with humans.
“My clients can often emote and express themselves more with the dog than with people in their life,” Walker says. “And I can then help them become more aware of their ability to connect with others.”
In addition, those who struggle with low self-esteem may feel validated that they have a friend in the dog, and the dog seems genuinely happy to see them again each week.
“Some of my clients who don’t have many friends feel important that the dog remembers them,” she says. “Support animals have gained much more acceptance in society — one of my dogs is a rescue himself and clients are inspired by his healing journey and can relate to it.”
2. Dogs for Traumatized Veterans
Austin’s very own The Dog Alliance is a nonprofit that trains service dogs for veterans and therapy dogs for counseling work. Executive Director Debi Krakar says that dogs have been proven to improve sleep and reduce suicidality in their veteran owners. Dogs tend to release oxytocin — a hormone and neurotransmitter that facilitates social bonding, empathy and love— in humans that connect with them, according to Krakar.
Although the VA acknowledges such research and recommends service dogs for veterans, they do not fund the expensive process of training dogs for that role. Training for a single dog can run $35,000, according to Krakar. The Dog Alliance accepts donations from those who wish to place a therapy dog with a veteran.
“Demand for therapeutic dogs has gone off the charts,” says Krakar. “There are so many roles they can fill.”
Among the many roles, the Alliance’s dogs serve in helping to facilitate social interaction in nursing homes.
3. Horses Have Special Healing Qualities
The value of animals to help us heal is not restricted to dogs. Almost any animal can serve as an important attachment figure, reducing loneliness and bringing joy and fun into our life. Some animals, however, seem uniquely qualified to help humans heal and learn self-awareness. Horses have long been recognized as valuable assistants in the therapy process for healing trauma and other ailments. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is a process whereby people gain confidence, reduce anxiety and heal from trauma with the support of these very sensitive animals.
According to Patty d’Andrea, program director at Healing with Horses Ranch outside of Austin, horses are a giant biofeedback machine.
“They are very sensitive to mood, energy and emotions, so you get immediate feedback on how you’re coming across,” she says.
Equine therapy is especially helpful for traumatized individuals who struggle to trust people. Such individuals can learn to give and receive love from a sensitive animal and begin to repair their attachment system.
“Horses have a finely tuned fight or flight system,” says d’Andrea. “very similar to that of a traumatized individual. They let it be okay to have natural reactions from anxiety or from feeling unsafe.”
In horse therapy, clients learn to care for themselves around a big animal, and to care for the animal around them — an experience that develops confidence, offers practice in setting boundaries and helps people build a sense of mutuality in relationships.
While animals can help us move through life with greater joy, companionship and help with our issues, they also exhibit important qualities we can learn from to improve ourselves and our relationships. Dogs have a keenly developed sense of dedication and loyalty, for example, and exhibit unconditional love — qualities we could all use more of. Horses can be stubborn, but also respond well to clear signals and encouragement, just like our partners. Let’s celebrate our animal friends this month by acknowledging their contribution to our lives, and be generous to the pets you come across.
John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™. They help their clients lower anxiety, heal depression, improve relationships and more.