Drug treatment contains many treatment options and tools that help newly recovering individuals find sobriety. While many are familiar with 12-step groups, individual and group counseling and life and coping skills training, there are other therapy options that can help those in treatment break free from the grip of addiction. One of the most popular emerging treatment options is animal-assisted therapy.

The History of Animal Assisted Therapy

Animals and humans have shared a special relationship since pre-historic times. Cave paintings indicate that the earliest human-animal relationships likely occurred between wolves and cavemen.  Archaeologists suggest that, over 10,000 years ago, the wolf/dog was the first animal to be domesticated. The dog played a large role in hunting and carrying loads, but there is little doubt that real human-dog relationships began the first time a dog responded to a pat on the head with a wagging tail.

Animals became an early treatment tool as well. Ancient Greeks used hippotherapy (i.e., physical therapy on horseback) to rehabilitate injured soldiers.

They were revered and sometimes considered deities. Egyptians tamed African tabby wildcats to hunt mice and rats. Cats went on to be pampered and worshiped. They were known to eat from the same plate as their owners, wear valuable jewelry, and be well taken care of medically. In fact, a story is told of how a Persian army once won victory over Egyptians by taking advantage of their reverence for cats. The Persians were besieging an Egyptian fort when their king had the brilliant idea of ordering his soldiers to throw live cats over the walls. The defending troops apparently allowed the city to be captured, rather than risk injuring the animals they knew to be sacred and which they suspected to be divine.

Even relatively modern times offer surprising believers in the power of the human/animal dynamic. It is rumored that Sigmund Freud believed that dogs had a “special sense” that allowed them to judge a person’s character accurately. His favorite chow chow, Jo-Fi, attended all of his therapy sessions.

Allegedly Freud depended on Jo-Fi for an assessment of a patient’s mental state. He believed that Jo-Fi could signal a patient’s level of tension by where he would lay in the room. If he stayed close to the patient, the patient was free of tension; if he lay across the room, the patient was tense. He believed that the presence of a dog had a calming influence on all patients. It was also rumored that Jo-Fi would signal the end of Freud’s sessions by pawing at the door.

While the concept of animal-assisted therapy is relatively new to many people, its origins surprisingly go back thousands of years. The origins of animal therapy can be traced back to ancient Greece where horses were used to help raise the spirits of those who were seriously or terminally ill. In the 17th century, horses were also used to improve both the person’s physical and psychological well-being.

In the 1800’s, Florence Nightingale used small pets as a healing and calming mechanism for mentally ill patients. In the 20th century, the American Red Cross utilized a variety of animals that injured veterans could help take care of to help their recovery. The current push in studying the benefits of animal assisted therapy began in earnest in the 1960’s, and continues to the present day.

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Physiological/Biological changes associated with human/animal interaction

Studies indicate that AAT has definitive physical and psychological benefits: 

Oxytocin is a powerful hormone proven to elevate when we are in a situation of affection, safety, and trust. It also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and profoundly reduces the effects of stress-related hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrin; improves immune system functioning and pain management; increases trustworthiness of and trust toward other persons; reduces aggression; enhances empathy and improves learning.

“One of the most fundamental advantages of animal-assisted therapy over other therapeutic modalities is that it provides the patient a much-needed opportunity to give affection as well as receive it. It is this reciprocity – rare among medical therapies – that makes AAT a unique and valuable route to healing.”

Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy

An increasing number of drug treatment facilities are incorporating animal assisted therapy into drug treatment programming. This form of therapy provides several great benefits that can help individuals tackle the underlying roots of their addiction. Firstly, animals like horses and dogs have an unconditional and non-judgmental temperament. Animals have an uncanny ability to mimic a person’s behavior. If someone is having issues communicating in treatment, animals will help make that apparent in their own behavior. As a result, addicts learn open up about the issues deeply rooted in their addiction.

Animals also have a calming effect on people. Spending time with animals can help people overcome negative emotions. Additionally, the act of simply betting an animal promotes the release of the brain chemical oxytocin. This chemical helps people feel more connected with others and is key in helping people find fulfillment in recovery.

Additionally, animal therapy helps increase physical activity in patients undergoing addiction treatment. A major component of animal therapy is simply taking animals for walks. The increase of physical activity helps release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the brain’s natural “feel good” chemical and helps people feel relaxed, happy and content. Additionally, being around animals reduces feelings of loneliness and eases depression.

Let Animals Help You Heal from Addiction

If you are looking for a therapy option that can help you get over the proverbial hump in your recovery, animal assisted therapy is worth a deeper look. Your success in treatment hinges on your willingness and openness to try different types of therapy such as animal assisted therapy. If you have been the commitment to sobriety, call Hawaii Island Recovery today. We offer animal assisted therapy and other top-notch programs that can be tailored to meet your specific needs.

You may think that your addiction is too severe, and that treatment would be a lost cause. The experienced treatment personnel at Hawaii Island Recovery will work with you every step of the way so you get the support you need to reach your goal—no matter how long it may take. Call Hawaii Island Recovery today and take your first steps towards long-term recovery.

Dolphin Assisted Therapy at Hawaii Island Recovery

Wild Dolphin Assisted Psychotherapy is a powerful experiential therapy that interfaces our clients to share meaningful experiences with wild dolphins.