< On this Page
On This Page ×

Animal-Assisted Therapy in the Rehab World

“Whenever life got Ethan down, I knew exactly what to do… sometimes he just needed a little nudge,” recalled Bailey. “If I can get you licking and loving, I have my purpose.”

These fictionalized thoughts are from the dog “Bailey” in the movie A Dog’s Purpose. The words speak to what pet owners have always known - animals can bring much positivity and comfort into our lives. Pets get us out and about; they make us smile; they cuddle with us. And increasingly, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is being implemented as a complementary therapeutic treatment.

"They're kind of like counselors with fur,” said Tim Hetzner, leader of the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K9 Comfort Dogs team in National Geographic’s The Healing Power of Dogs. “They have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don't judge you or talk back."

“Whenever life got Ethan down, I knew exactly what to do… sometimes he just needed a little nudge,” recalled Bailey. “If I can get you licking and loving, I have my purpose.”

These fictionalized thoughts are from the dog “Bailey” in the movie A Dog’s Purpose. The words speak to what pet owners have always known - animals can bring much positivity and comfort into our lives. Pets get us out and about; they make us smile; they cuddle with us. And increasingly, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is being implemented as a complementary therapeutic treatment.

"They're kind of like counselors with fur,” said Tim Hetzner, leader of the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K9 Comfort Dogs team in National Geographic’s The Healing Power of Dogs. “They have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don't judge you or talk back."

How Pets and Animals Help People Overcome Addictions

From children with autism to nursing home patients, from veterans with PTSD to domestic violence victims, the use of animals in therapy is not just limited to dogs. Other animals have been used very successfully in healthcare settings including substance abuse recovery. However, dogs come to mind first.

According to Professor Daniel Mills and Dr. Sophie Hall who authored a 2014 piece on AAT in Veterinary Record, there is actual evidence that dog (and cat owners) are healthier, both physically and mentally, than non-pet owners. Studies also show that dog owners, in particular, heal more rapidly from physical and mental illnesses.

"We should be curious about all the ways companion animals can potentially help us and embrace the opportunities provided by a greater appreciation of the impact of companion animals on our lives,” wrote Mills and Hall. “Companion animals should not be considered a luxury or unnecessary indulgence, but rather, when cared for appropriately, they should be seen as valuable contributors to human health and wellbeing.”

Does Pet-Assisted Therapy Work?

In 2014, the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) worked with Cohen Research Group on the largest survey ever conducted regarding human health benefits of animals. In an online survey of 1,000 family doctors and general practitioners, the following was discovered:

69%

of doctors surveyed have worked with animals in a medical setting to assist patient therapy or treatment and report that interactions have improved the following:

  • 88% patient physical condition
  • 97% patient mental health condition
  • 98% patient mood or outlook
  • 76% patient relationships with staff
97%

of doctors reported they believe there are health benefits resulting from owning a pet

60%

have recommended getting a pet to a patient; 43% recommended the pet to improve overall health and 17% made the recommendation for a specific condition

75%

of doctors said they saw one or more patient’s overall health improve and 87% said patients’ mood or outlook improved after owning a pet

The Benefits of Animal Therapy in Rehab

So, what are the specific benefits resulting from AAT? What types of physical and mental progress are gained by bringing an animal into a therapeutic environment? Various physical and mental health improvements have been reporter. The following are some of the most common ones:

  • Decrease in stress hormone levels
  • Release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection
  • Increase in beta-endorphin levels, hormone related to reducing pain
  • Positive endocrine responses as indicated by levels of cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine.
  • Regulation of breathing
  • Lowering of blood pressure and heart rate
  • Reduction in feelings of anger, hostility, tension and anxiety
  • Improved social functioning
  • Psychological stimulation of caring for an animal leads a person to take care of themselves better
  • Increased feelings of empowerment, trust, patience and self-esteem
Why Animal Therapy is So Effective

Why are animals so effective in boosting human health? Is it the unconditional love? The soft fur? The purring or cooing? The connection without actual talking? For dogs, it might be more apparent.

“Part of what makes dogs special is that they are one of the only species that does not generally exhibit xenophobia, meaning fear of strangers,” according to Brian Hare, director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition. “We’ve done research on this, and what we’ve found is that not only are most dogs totally not xenophobic, they’re actually xenophilic—they love strangers! That’s one way in which you could say dogs are ‘better’ than people. We’re not always that welcoming.”


Psychologist Debbie Custance of Goldsmiths College, University of London agrees. A study Custance led examining whether dogs exhibited empathy showed quite wonderful results. Volunteers were asked to either simulate crying or simply hum.

“The response was extraordinary,” she said. Nearly all of the dogs came over to nuzzle or lick the crying person, whether it was the owner or a stranger, while they paid little attention when people were merely humming.

On a therapeutic level, there is much evidence to show the complementary benefits to healing and recovery provided by AAT. Results from these animal encounters can vary from simply calming a patient, to facilitating a conversation with a human therapist, or potentially making a major breakthrough prompted by the bond created between human and animal.

Q&A with Animal Therapy Expert Natalie Port

About Natalie Port
About Natalie Port

Natalie Port is the marketing and strategic partnership coordinator for Pet Partners. Since graduating from Whitman College in 2014, Natalie Port has been closely involved in human-animal interactions. She trained horses and “their people” for a year after graduating from college and before joining Pet Partners in volunteer services. Today, as Marketing & Strategic Partnerships Coordinator, Natalie connects with the press, with community interest organizations, and promotes Pet Partners’ mission in web and print outlets. Her goal is to express clearly and passionately the importance of the human-animal bond and how Pet Partners plays a critical role in connecting people with valuable, healing time with animals.

About Pet Partners

Pet Partners is the global leader in advocacy and education around animal-assisted interventions. Our Therapy Animal Program is a volunteer-based initiative with more than 15,000 therapy animal teams of handlers and their animal visiting people in need, improving their emotional and physical well-being. Through a commitment to rigorous standards, continuing education, and special initiatives like Read with Me and Walk with Me, we aim to promote the important role that animals play in human health and ensure that through careful attention to safety, these opportunities to connect with well-trained handlers and animals continue to be available for anyone who would benefit from such relationships

  • Q. Can you tell me about Pet Partners and what you do?

    A. Broadly speaking, our teams participate in what are called animal-assisted interventions: structured, goal-oriented interactions with an animal that is handled by a responsible and educated handler, both of whom have gone through some kind of screening process. This varies widely across the industry and Pet Partners remains far and away the most rigorous in our standards of practice and expectations for our therapy animal teams. This means our teams are the best prepared, supported through continuing education, and have a network of specialized staff to help both volunteers and facilities who bring in our teams to have successful and safe visits.

    Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) can be broken down into several categories: animal-assisted activities, animal-assisted therapy, and animal-assisted education. Our teams participate in all of these activities. AAA is less structured, usually involves social/emotional wellness and tends to be part of a recreational activity: for example, spending time with elderly residents in a nursing home, providing companionship and comfort. AAT is any form of AAI that is again goal-oriented, structured, and monitored by a licensed professional: perhaps a counselor, occupational therapist, or speech therapist. The professional overseeing the treatment plan will create benchmarks for assessing patient progress and employ the therapy animal team as a kind of tool to support the patient. This might involve some kind of physical exercise: for example, engaging with a Pet Partners Walk with Me team (our Walk with Me program provides special education and support to volunteers wishing to help engage patients/clients in physical wellness through walking with their therapy animal). A physical therapist might work with a Walk with Me team to help their patients regain mobility, strength, or balance.

    AAE is any form of AAI that is incorporated into a learning setting: it might be a reading program, like Pet Partners Read with Me, where children get the opportunity to read to animals and practice their skills in a non-judgmental environment. Or, it might be using a therapy animal as a motivation to help children want to engage with material and reach goals in their classroom learning, which we’ve seen done in classrooms with students of a wide range of ages.

  • Q. Can you give me one or two examples of successful AAT in substance abuse treatment?

    A. With the caveat that I’m not a mental health practitioner, I can say that we have seen instances of LPCs incorporating animals in their sessions, to provide their patient/client comfort and sanctuary during these often stressful or challenging sessions. This is a good tool in both individual counseling and group sessions. Therapy animals could also be part of unstructured AAA, helping patients decompress from long days in therapy; the trusting, non-judgmental nature of animals lends them well to helping people open up, relax, and connect with another living being, which opens doors for other relationships with family, friends, or staff at their treatment facility that may already be strained by histories of addiction.

  • Q. Are there any warnings regarding AAT or things to consider before trying this sort of therapy? How do you advise potential patients/partners?

    A. Absolutely – in order for animal-assisted interventions to be safe and effective, there are numerous considerations to take into account. The Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, which has a Human-Animal Interaction Center, recently released a statement based on a research survey of numerous institutions currently employing AAI and recognized that the lack of standardization in the industry is a problem. It is irresponsible not to have policies and procedures that are carefully designed when working with living beings as part of another living being’s treatment protocol. At Pet Partners, we carefully educate and screen volunteers to the highest standards in the industry so that any facility or organization considering our teams can bring them in with confidence. Considerations regarding safe handling, advocacy for the animal’s comfort and welfare, and infection control practices are all essential to excellence in AAI.

    We would strongly encourage anyone with interest in AAI to first get basic education about these considerations. Pet Partners offers a Handler Course that is an excellent introduction to AAI and is required education for all of our volunteers. Other additional programming in AAT offered at certain colleges or universities will build on this basic knowledge, but Pet Partners does not specifically recommend any of these programs.

  • Q. What type of training is needed for participants?

    A: At Pet Partners, we first require all volunteers to complete the Handler Course, which is a two to three hour online course (some in person options are available depending on your location). Volunteers also complete an Animal Health Screening Form, signed by their veterinarian, verifying that the animal meets certain health requirements to safely participate in AAI. The team together participate in an in-person evaluation, an assessment designed to imitate a real-life therapy animal visit, thereby giving our volunteer evaluators real-world information about the team’s suitability to visit.

Types of Animal-Assisted Addiction Therapy

AAT is designed as a complementary treatment option to be used with typical, evidence-based methods to enhance and magnify recovery outcomes. With substance abuse issues in particular, AAT has been effective in a variety of ways from minimizing aggression, helping with balance and helping patients with their day to day tasks and routines. Overarching goals and benefits include improvement of the therapeutic alliance between human therapist and patient and the patient’s general regard for and adherence to his or her treatment plan. Specifically used in both individual and group therapy sessions, it has shown to be most effective in adult residential addiction treatment programs, day treatment programs for adolescents and young adults, and as part of substance abuse treatment in criminal justice setting.

While dogs are most often associated with AAT, many other animals have been used in this complementary treatment modality including small (cats, rabbits, birds, fish, gerbils), large (horses) and exotic species (elephants, dolphins, lizards). The following list compiles and outlines some AAT types and implementations.

Dogs have been used in healing practices dating back to ancient Egyptian times. Ancient Greeks also believed that a dog’s lick could have curative qualities, and the French have a saying – “Langue de chien, langue de medecin – which means “A dog’s tongue is a doctor’s tongue.”

Even Sigmund Freud saw the benefits of incorporating dogs into therapy sessions, as he witnessed the sense of safety, acceptance and reassurance his own dog relayed to patients as they more fully revealed their innermost thoughts and feelings. While the psychoanalyst first brought his chow Jofi into therapy sessions for his own personal comfort, he began to realize that patients would often speak more freely and openly in the presence of the dog, especially about deeply painful issues. Freud also found his work was most effective when he (the therapist) was out of view of the patient, and the dog was lying or sitting quietly nearby the latter.

Where to Begin

A multi-faceted treatment plan is the best way to help someone struggling with alcohol or drug addiction. That means using a combination of tools, including medical, behavioral, and other forms of treatment. Animal-based therapy is proven to open patients up to treatment and recovery. Unfortunately, not all rehab centers offer pet therapy. Contact potential treatment programs directly to learn more about therapy options.