By Kate Sprague, LCSW, CCTP, Therapist at Clarity Way
I knew I wanted our next pet to be a therapy dog when my daughter and I went to pick out a puppy in January 2014. Cooper was just six days old when I met him, but I realized right away there was something almost magical about him. We brought Cooper home when he was eight weeks old, after visiting with him weekly. We started working with him immediately and in May 2015 he became a certified therapy dog through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Together, Cooper and I have been a certified animal-assisted therapy team, and I’ve been bringing him to the addiction treatment center where I work since June 2014. Through Cooper I get to see every day how healing and powerful the human-animal bond can be.
Animals and humans have relied on each other for centuries. In ancient times, animals helped their humans by protecting them from predators with their heightened night vision and sense of smell. In turn, humans protected and cared for their animals. Animals have been used in medical settings for over 150 years. Using animals in a therapeutic setting can be traced back to the 19th century, when Florence Nightingale noted that small pets relieved depression in patients. Sigmund Freud utilized his Chow Chow, Jofi, originally bringing the dog to sessions to help Freud combat his own anxiety, and stumbling across benefits for the client.
Research has shown that interacting with animals can increase self-confidence, prosocial behaviors, motivation, and a person’s sense of safety and comfort. This is partly due to the release of the hormone oxytocin during animal-human interactions, which has a calming effect and can enhance feelings of happiness. Increased oxytocin decreases release of the “stress hormone” cortisol, which in these unsure and fast-paced times, many of us have a lot of.
Here are a few examples of ways I’ve seen the benefits of animal-assisted addiction therapy techniques play out through my work with Cooper:
One of the coolest things I’ve seen Cooper do is comfort someone so that they do not have an anxiety attack. A client was having a very difficult time one day, and was rejecting staff and didn’t want anyone around. Cooper and I just happened upon the scene and he immediately went over and sat down on top of the client (he loves to lay halfway on top of people), who started petting him. After a few minutes, the client was able to slow breathing down through touching and looking at Cooper. Cooper didn’t move until well after the panic attack was gone and the client was remarkably calmer. It was amazing to watch this beautiful therapeutic moment unfold without any human intervention. I largely stayed out of it. They worked together to pull the client through the panic attack.
I’ve seen clients’ self-esteem grow immensely as a result of interacting with Cooper. Sometimes people with addictions haven’t felt trusted by others or trusted themselves for quite some time. Others who once had a love of animals may have put that love on the backburner or may have even lost pets as a result of their addiction. Cooper can help reawaken that part of them. When I trust clients to look after Cooper or take him for a walk, it can go a long way in helping them regain self-confidence and begin trusting themselves again.
Clients often come to Clarity Way beaten down by shame and guilt and see themselves as “all bad,” which is an example of black-and-white thinking. By being unconditionally loving, accepting and nonjudgmental, Cooper allows clients to gently move away from that cognitive distortion. Cooper’s acceptance of clients and attention to them allows them to move away from a negative self-concept.
Animals live in the moment and help keep us in the moment when we interact with them. If you’re walking your dog, you can engage with most of your senses. You can pay attention to the sights and smells and where you’re going. You can feel the leash in your hands and hear the sounds of the outside world. When clients take Cooper for walks, it forces them to pay attention to what he’s doing and where they’re headed. Sometimes he takes them to see parts of our treatment center that they normally wouldn’t visit, such as the trails. Clients must stay engaged with Cooper and what’s going on around them. It can be an impactful lesson in mindfulness and staying in the moment, which is a valuable skill to have in recovery.
I see clients come out of their shell with Cooper and watch these relationships evolve. I regularly have past clients ask me how Cooper is doing and our alumni are eager to reunite with him during our monthly alumni day. Cooper always remembers them. To see how this little pup I picked out at six days old is having a positive impact on so many people’s lives is deeply rewarding.