Benefits of Canine-Assisted Therapy in Substance Use Disorder Treatment

There is a special bond between people and animals. We open our homes to our pets and share our lives with them, building bonds that are sometimes even stronger than our bonds with other people. Most people think of their pets as part of the family, according to a recent Harris Poll. Our bond is especially strong with dogs, which can be found in about 85 million U.S. households – more than any other animal.

Our connection with dogs (and other animals, such as horses, cats, and birds) has led mental health experts to integrate them into treatment for a wide range of disorders. Dogs are a popular choice of therapy animal, and for good reason. They are smart, nonjudgmental, sensitive to others’ emotions and easy to train. Sometimes called canine-assisted therapy or dog-assisted therapy, this approach is helpful in treating substance use disorders, emotional trauma, depression, anxiety, and other issues. Here are a few benefits of canine-assisted therapy in substance abuse treatment:

#1 Motivation to Recover

When people feel anxious or uncomfortable in treatment, it’s hard to focus on recovery. This can increase the risk of relapse and leaving rehab early. Animal-assisted therapy helps ease anxiety and makes people more comfortable in the treatment environment, which increases their likelihood of adhering to their treatment plan and completing rehab.

When a person interacts with a dog, research shows changes happen in the body that make us feel relaxed and happy. For example:

  • Their Blood pressure goes down.
  • Their eart rate slows and breathing becomes more regular.
  • The brain releases endorphins, oxytocin (a bonding hormone), serotonin and other feel-good chemicals, and fewer stress-related hormones like cortisol.

In one study, a group of people were exposed to a stressor and then told to pet either a rabbit, turtle or toy. While touching the toy didn’t have an effect, petting an animal relieved anxiety. The benefits extended to people who reported that they didn’t like animals.

#2 Therapeutic Alliance

People are also more likely to adhere to their treatment plan if they have rapport with their therapist. Some people, such as those who have experienced emotional trauma, feel more comfortable opening up to an animal than a therapist. Animal-assisted therapy gives therapists deeper insights into their patients’ histories, patterns, and challenges, so they can provide treatment tailored to their needs. By facilitating the experience of working with an animal, therapists can build trust and make an emotional connection, which helps overcome any resistance to treatment.

#3 Socialization & Emotional Development

Canine-assisted therapy can help people build relationships with their peers in treatment. It gives them a common experience to talk about, making it easier to establish bonds.This is especially helpful for those who find socializing difficult.

Animal-assisted therapy also can give patients insight into social issues that get in the way of recovery. For example, interactions with dogs can surface unrealistic expectations and issues with boundaries, such as expecting the animal to immediately bond and feeling rejected if it doesn’t. Patients can also learn about the impact of body language and other social cues. For instance, approaching an animal too quickly and being perceived as aggressive.

The therapist can use these animal interactions to explore the patient’s experiences with people. The skills and awareness they develop through animal-assisted therapy can translate into relationships with family and friends. By developing emotional intelligence with animals, patients can understand how their behavior affects others and be more in tune with other people’s emotional needs. These skill help them build healthy relationships.

Dogs also play an important role outside the treatment setting. The logistics of pet ownership can help combat isolation. For example, dogs need to go for walks, which naturally leads to conversations with other dog owners or neighbors. Pets are natural social ice breakers. Even if social interaction is typically awkward, it can be more comfortable when a dog is there. One study showed that people who walked a dog at least four times a week were more likely than non-dog owners to feel a strong sense of community.

#4 Self-Confidence

Interactions with animals can be confidence-building. For people who struggle with addiction, it is common for loved ones to harbor resentments or lose hope. Dogs offer unconditional love regardless of their caretaker’s struggles. They are grateful for the love and care people provide. This validation can motivate people to continue on their path to recovery.

#5 Emotional Regulation

Studies show animal-assisted interventions can help reduce depression and improve mood. Loving and attentive, dogs are an instant mood booster. Their calming presence provides a healthy distraction from negative thoughts and helps people with mental illness cope with difficult emotions.

#6 Self-Care

Caring for a dog can empower people to take good care of themselves. The animal’s well-being depends on its owner. This dependence builds internal motivation to follow healthy routines like getting up at a certain time and eating regularly. Buying food for a dog may remind someone to stop and eat a meal themselves.

Dogs are also great at keeping their caregivers fit. Naturally playful and happiest when exercising, dogs inspire their owners to leave the house and get moving. Countless studies show exercise releases feel-good chemicals that reduce stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, and exercising outdoors has even more mental health benefits.

#7 Mindfulness

Dogs have a way of pulling our focus into the present moment. Petting a dog or going for a walk can bring us into our bodies and draw attention to our senses. Just as dogs naturally live in the moment, they can teach us to pay attention to what is happening around us and find joy in right now.

#8 Responsibility & Giving Back

Helping others, including animals, can bring meaning and purpose to life. Caring for a pet helps people feel needed and shows them the rewards of fulfilling their responsibilities. It also takes the focus off themselves. That’s an important lesson for those in recovery who often spend too much time ruminating. Research shows giving back has a host of benefits, from reducing blood pressure, stress and loneliness to boosting self-esteem, happiness and longevity. It may also improve sleep quality, another common issue for people in recovery.

Dogs depend on people to meet their needs. People also benefit from interacting with dogs, both in their personal lives and in mental health treatment settings. For most people, a dog is a welcome addition to the therapy team – one that can make treatment more enjoyable as well as effective.