Animal-assisted therapy: Its Origins and Why The Treatment Is Effective in Treating Mental Health-Related Issues 

Animal-assisted therapy is a supplemental, albeit clinically proven, therapy that uses animal interaction in its treatment. AAT is classified as a type of Animal Assisted Intervention - an encompassing umbrella that refers to any treatment that includes an animal in a ‘therapeutic context’ or emotional support animals. While many types of animals are used in animal-assisted therapy, the two most commonly used animals are dogs and horses (canine and equine-assisted therapy). Since there are many applications by which AAT can be used, there are also many types of goals that it is used to achieve, including improving social, behavioral, cognitive, mental, and emotional functions. 

Animal-assisted therapy is sometimes confused with similar, albeit a much different type of treatment known as animal-assisted activity (AAA). Whereas AAT is a formal, clinically structured set of sessions that helps patients reach mental health-related goals in their treatment. AAA involves more casual meetings in which an animal and its handler interact with one or more people for comfort or recreation.

Clinical studies show that animal-assisted therapy effectively improves mental and behavioral issues and can improve blood pressure and other measurable physiological changes. 

What Makes Animal-Assisted Therapy Effective? 

As to why animal-assisted therapy effectively treats mental health-related issues, there are numerous theories, contributing factors, and scientific studies to refer to. 

For instance, Edward O. Wilson, famed biologist, posits through the biophilia hypothesis that our attachments to animals stem from our ancient, prehistoric ancestors’ reliance on animals for survival. Wilson points out that our ancestors relied on signals from animals that indicated environmental conditions to determine whether they were safe or threatening.  

Wilson’s hypothesis posits that if we see animals in a peaceful or restful state, we feel a reciprocated sense of “safety, security, and improved well-being.” Incidentally, Wilson suggests this reciprocated connection with animals may enable a triggered state in us - one in which we can experience personal and healing change. 

Animal-Assisted Interventions' Therapeutic Effect on Adolescents 

While animal-assisted therapy is provenly effective in treating those of any age, it is especially productive for adolescents. Specifically, animal-assisted intervention therapies are clinically proven to promote teens’ emotional, cognitive, and social states of well-being.

A joint study from 2004 titled, ‘Can Animals Help Humans Heal? Animal-Assisted Interventions in Adolescent Mental Health’ suggests that AAT is effective in improving the following (in teens): 

  • General anxiety disorders
  • Communication between patient and therapist
  • Compliance and retention in therapy
  • Positive social behaviors

The same study found preliminary evidence that animals in AAT for adolescence "catalyze learning, comfort sources, and outlets for nurturance."

Similar studies have shown that animal-assisted therapy can also help treat teens who have difficulty with socializing. 

It is common for mental health-related conditions, such as depression or anxiety, to negatively affect the part of a teen’s brain that enables them to communicate with others effectively. Interestingly, this part of the brain is unaffected when it comes to interacting with animals. 

Consequently, when clinically anti-social teens are introduced to an animal during therapy sessions, they are more easily able to access that otherwise shut-off part of their brain - allowing them to undergo traditional therapy with a psychiatric professional successfully. 

Clearview Girls Academy Utilizes Animal-Assisted Therapy Treatment

Clearview Girls Academy offers affordable, expert Christ-centered treatment for life-controlling issues and disorders in girls, including attachment disorders, attention deficit, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, self-destructive or antisocial behavior, and issues involved with adoption.

In the form of equine-assisted treatment, animal-assisted therapy is one of the staples of our therapeutic curriculum. Over 25 years of serving troubled teenage girls, we have honed our equine therapy treatment program to seamlessly interact and support our other dynamic, cutting-edge treatment styles. 

What is The Goal of Equine Therapy?

The goal of equine therapy is to help the girl develop needed skills and attributes, such as accountability, responsibility, self-confidence, problem-solving skills, and self-control. Equine therapy also provides an innovative milieu in which the therapist and the patient can identify and address a range of emotional and behavioral challenges.

While working with horses under the guidance and supervision of an equine therapist, our students have a unique opportunity to note their tendency to engage in self-defeating and otherwise negative thoughts and actions. These realizations provide excellent bases for discussion and processing both during and after the equine therapy experience.

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