In an study published in 2013, patients with dementia living in residential care who received 11 weeks of dog-assisted therapy had greater improvements in depression scores compared to patients who received human-only therapy.9 A paper from the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry reports that nursing home patients with dementia who received 10 weeks of AAT had no worsening of depression or agitation/aggression, while those symptoms increased in patients who received treatment as usual.10
Other studies have shown that dog-assisted therapy led to reduced stress and increased adherence to cognitive-behavioral therapy,11 and that it resulted in less anxious arousal while writing about trauma–and decreased depression at follow-up, compared with no-dog controls.12
“The results suggest that dogs can lower acute distress without compromising emotional processing or therapeutic mechanisms, and may actually improve long-term outcomes for some individuals,” the authors of the latter study concluded.
The benefits of AAT often outweigh the risks, but it is “a highly specialized and intentional intervention that involves much more than bringing a friendly animal to interact with people,” says Stewart. “Providers interested in incorporating must seek appropriate training and supervised experience, just as we would when practicing any other specialty approach.”
The American Counseling Association published a comprehensive introduction to AAT for interested practitioners to learn more about risks, benefits and training requirements,13 and the American Psychological Association has a section on human-animal interaction aimed at advancing the understanding of its psychological impact.14
Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC, is a psychotherapist and freelance writer based in Atlanta.
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14. American Psychological Association. Human Animal Interaction. Retrieved on 1/11/16 from http://www.apa-hai.org/human-animal-interaction