The therapeutic value of animals

Dandelion Time

06 August 2020

Written by Lauren Mewett, Family Case Work at Dandelion Time

From wall paintings in ancient Egypt depicting the worship of house cats, to archaeological digs from the B.C era revealing people buried alongside their pet dogs[1]. Evidence of the natural bond we as humans share with animals has been seen across the globe, dating back centuries. Most will be familiar with the therapeutic experience of having an animal as a pet. The close bond you form with that animal and revealing what it is to care so deeply for another being. Having a pet can bring joy and happiness into a home. The duty of caring for an animal brings a rewarding sense of responsibility, whilst easing the loneliness and isolation that can be felt even in the busiest lives.

Interacting with animals has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety in children and adults. Animals, dogs in particular, are often used in therapeutic settings because of their ability to bring a sense of calm, comfort and focus to those who most need it. Animal therapy is now used in schools, care homes and with military veterans to help those struggling with the effects of trauma related difficulties such as PTSD, depression and anxiety. These animals can also similarly help those with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Autism and Oppositional disorders[2].

By involving families in care for our animals, they can practice empathy, compassion and tune into senses that may have become underutilised or stuck due to their experiences

We know that those who have experienced trauma in early life or been exposed to adverse life experiences can become trapped in their reactive brain. The part of the brain responsible for flight or fight responses. Existing here makes it difficult to feel relaxed and people rarely have ways established to help them feel calm. Animals can help to bridge the gap between what we are sensing within us, and the input from world around us. Using animals to assist therapy can reduce blood pressure and increase the production of hormones that help the body to feel calm, therefore granting access to our rational brain[3]. Animals also provide a safe interaction that is not always available within human-human contact, providing the opportunity for even those most emotionally and physically shutdown to begin reaching out. They create an authentic space that is free of judgement. The patterns of interaction and bonds established with these animals can then be transferred and extended to other safe relationships.

Animals can help us to feel calm, offer a non-judgemental space and give our thoughts a break

At Dandelion Time our animals are an integral component to help support our children and their families. Often children referred to us are emotionally shut down and withdrawn. For many, establishing a connection with our animals is the first step in helping children take positive healing steps. Spending time with animals helps children build on their skills to nurture and empathise with someone outside of themselves. They give parents and carers the opportunity to model behaviours that can translate into learnt behaviours for those children watching on. Children also learn to identify and regulate their emotions around animals. Developing the ability to remain calm and quiet with the donkeys or showing the guinea pigs compassion when keeping them warm and feeling safe in their arms.

Relationships with animals can act as a metaphor for other challenges children may face in life. During the process of building trust with an animal, children experience rejection and frustration. This encourages them to develop ways to cope with these feelings, when they might have been overwhelming before. Animals don’t hold grudges, and children’s efforts to earn their trust will never go unnoticed. In that moment, when a child finally gets a chicken to feed from their hand, or for the sheep to allow them to stroke their wool, the sense of achievement and reward is invaluable. These are the feelings the children will carry with them and apply to experiences in life they are yet to have.

[1] Hajar, R. (2015). Animal-assisted therapy. Heart views: the official journal of the Gulf Heart Association. 16(2): 70.

[2] Amerine, J. L., & Hubbard, G. B. (2016). Using animal-assisted therapy to enrich psychotherapy. Advances in mind-body medicine. 30(3): 11-11.

[3] Odendaal, J. S. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy—magic or medicine? Journal of psychosomatic research. 49(4): 275-280.

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