I didn’t start off being a psychotherapist, and I never thought above all that I would be interested in animal-assisted therapy. My journey towards actualizing my career vision began by me working at a career for 15 years, which didn’t inspire my soul or capture my heart.
I worked for 15 years in sales at several different Fortune 500 companies. There was one sales call I went on. And when I walked in the door to try and talk to the decision-maker, between me and my goal stood a tough gatekeeper.
This woman did not allow me to access or even for me to leave my card for the owner. However, I saw on her table a picture of a cute dog. I asked her about the cute dog. Her heart melted, and she lit up and began talking about her puppy, and everything changed from there. I saw the power that a relationship with an animal has on someone!
The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy
One of the achievements that I have enjoyed over the last year is becoming a Certified Animal Assisted Psychotherapist. I went through approximately a years’ worth of training and did practical intensives in North Carolina on an animal refuge and in Israel visiting several therapy zoos.
So is the sole benefit of bringing an animal into the therapy space, a way to tap into the unconditional love and safety that the animal brings? Or is there something more complex at work than can provide transformational healing? What can I do at home with my animals if I am not a therapist and tap into this magical healing power?
Research on Animal Assisted Therapy
The use of animals, which is a no brainer to animal lovers- wasn’t so obvious when the Father of Pet therapy, as he called it, Dr. Boris Levinson, presented his findings in 1961. After his presentation, he was ridiculed, and others disparaged his research (Levinson 1969a as cited in Levinson & Mallon 1969).
However, with time his research began to take root, and there has developed a niche in psychotherapy of using a whole spectrum of animals, including dogs, cats, horses, and even farm animals.
Without going into too much of the technical aspects, there is the first very significant aspect of having an animal as a co-therapist in our brains very makeup. This came about as research into areas of the brain revealing viewing pictures.
Specifically, there was a neurological preference for images of animals in the part of the brain called the Amygdala. This preference was vs. other pictures, such as people or places.
This part of the brain is one of the core points for emotional processing. As one of the main goals of therapy is to for the client to tap into and safely express aspects of their inner dimension, animals are a natural medium for this delicate work (Parish-Plass, 2013).
Also, the fact that therapy goes from being a two-dimensional exchange to a three-dimensional triangular experience exponentially enriches the interactions. So while the cuteness factor and unconditional love of an animal are always beneficial, in a therapy context, there are much more profound ramifications.
How Animal Assisted Therapy Can Help with Anxiety
How can my dog “Rover” help me with my anxiety? (I am assuming a dog hasn’t been named Rover since the 1950’s J). On a simple level, anxiety is when we are focusing on anything but the present moment. The here and now, and usually fear-based. One general technique to transcend anxiety is to put your focus squarely on the present.
One natural intervention called “Samurai eyes” that can be done is to bring your pet near you and begin looking and examining him or her from head to tail. However, here it’s essential to try and notice every detail, including the texture of fur, colors, and shapes. While doing this in a spirit of acceptance when other thoughts pop in, just gently notice them and then return to the scan. Don’t judge them or yourself that you’re not doing it “right.”
Observe Without Judgement
As I once heard from Eckhart Tolle that whatever is our present moment experience with the meditation (or in this case mindful scan) we are attempting is precisely what it’s supposed to be. The judgments about not being on a deeper level or not doing it right are just distractions of the ego.
The best way to deal with this is just to notice the thought pop in. Observe it for a moment without judgment, and then continue. After you are done with the “mindful scan,” then close your eyes and attempt to recreate whatever detail you can.
It can be helpful to modulate between the open eye scan and the close eyed scan. Even if this can be done for 90 seconds, it can help to break patterns of thinking and give a mindful pause. To add another dimension, you can self-rate your anxiety on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst.
Another intervention that can be done is therapeutic grooming. If you begin feeling some distress, first self-rate your distress in the same way mentioned before. Then start to brush your pet for 30 seconds, focusing on every small nuance of the experience. This includes noticing the feeling of the brush in your hand. Being aware of the wind movements as you go back and forth, etc. Also, the same mindful acceptance before in terms of outside thoughts works best.
This includes again not judging any ideas that come into your head; instead, notice them and returning to the brushing. After every 30 seconds, set rerate the level of distress and continue until the distress goes down to a manageable level. There is an unlimited amount of healing through our connection to animals and nature in general and we can certainly use animal assisted therapy to our benefit. Below is a picture of my co-therapist, Mr. Snufflupagus, or Snuffles for short!
Yonason (Ron) Witonsky, LCSW EMDR trained, is a Trauma and Crisis therapist with a private practice in New York City. He is the founder and clinical director of NYCSUPPORT.ORG and has first-hand experience with chronic illness in close family members. Yonason is happy to answer your comments and questions and can be reached at 718-614-5449 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.