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

References

1.  Beetz A, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Julius H, Kotrschal K. Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology; 2012; 3: 234.

2.  Ernst L. AnimalAssisted Therapy: An Exploration of Its HistoryHealing Benefits, and How Skilled Nursing Facilities Can Set Up Programs. Annals of Long-term Care; 2014; 22(10).

3.  American Humane. Therapy Animals Supporting Kids (TASK)™ Program. Retrieved on 1/11/2016 from http://www.americanhumane.org/assets/pdfs/children/therapy-animals-supporting-kids.pdf

4.  Krause-Parello CA and Gulick EE. Forensic Interviews for Child Sexual Abuse Allegations: An Investigation into the Effects of Animal-Assisted Intervention on Stress Biomarkers. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse; 2015; 24(8):873-86.

5.  O’Haire ME, McKenzie SJ, McCune S, Slaughter V. Effects of classroom animal-assisted activities on social functioning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine; 2014; 20(3):162-8. 

6.  Gabriels RL, Pan Z, Dechant B, Agnew JA, Brim N, Mesibov G. Randomized Controlled Trial of Therapeutic Horseback Riding in Children and Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; 2015; 54(7):541-9. 

7.  Balluerka N, Muela A, Amiano N, Caldentey MA. Promoting psychosocial adaptation of youths in residential care through animal-assisted psychotherapy. Child Abuse & Neglect; 2015; 50:193-205.

8.  Stewart LA, Dispenza F, Parker L, Chang CY, Cunnien T. A Pilot Study Assessing the Effectiveness of an AnimalAssisted Outreach Program, Journal of Creativity in Mental Health; 2014; 9:3, 332-345.

9.  Travers C, Perkins J, Rand J, Bartlett H, Morton J. An Evaluation of Dog-Assisted Therapy for Residents of Aged Care Facilities with Dementia. Anthrozoös; 2013; 26(2).

10.  Majić T, Gutzmann H, Heinz A, Lang UE, Rapp MA. Animal-Assisted Therapy and Agitation and Depression in Nursing Home Residents with Dementia: A Matched Case–Control Trial. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry; 2013; 21(11):1052–1059.

11.  González-Ramírez MT, Ortiz-Jiménez XA, Landero-Hernández R. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Animal-Assisted Therapy. Alternative and Complementary Therapies. October 2013, 19(5): 270-275. 

12.  Hunt MG, Chizkov RR. Are Therapy Dogs Like Xanax? Does Animal- Assisted Therapy ImpactProcesses Relevant to Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy? Anthrozoös; Sep2014; 27(3):457.

13.  Shelton LS, Leeman M, O’Hara C. Introduction to animal assisted therapy in counseling. Retrieved on 1/11/16 from https://www.counseling.org/resources/library/vistas/2011-V-Online/Article_55.pdf

14.  American Psychological Association. Human Animal Interaction. Retrieved on 1/11/16 from http://www.apa-hai.org/human-animal-interaction