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By Keri Malinoski, MA, CAP, Hanley Foundation Prevention Specialist

“I think dogs are the most amazing creatures. They give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive.”  – Gilda Radner

Almost any pet owner can cite numerous advantages of having a cuddly companion around the home. Many people consider their pets to be a part of their immediate family. While most dog owners are aware that canines have positive health benefits, scientific research is emerging to suggest spending time with your dog can positively affect your brain chemistry.

The relationship between animals and humans and the realization of this therapeutic potential can be traced back to the 1800s when Florence Nightingale discovered pets could reduce anxiety in children.

Later, in the 1930s Sigmund Freud began bringing animals into therapy sessions. Today, animals are sometimes used in therapy because they can help people relax, minimize stress and offer a sense of safety, as well as unconditional acceptance.

A study was conducted in 2014 by Karnioka and Okada, which found animal interventions with dogs, horses, birds, rabbits, dolphins and guinea pigs are “an effective treatment for alcohol and drug addiction and mental health disorders such as depression…” (

Two animals most commonly used for animal-assisted therapy (AAT) are canines and equines.

AAT is a term that encompasses numerous therapeutic and recreational activities that join with the healing power of animals. AAT is not an independent modality. It is a technique that is used alongside other evidence-based treatment practices, such as counseling and detoxification.

When considering treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs), a significant benefit of AAT is a strengthened bond between the provider and the client. This improves compliance and increases the chances of the client completing addiction treatment. Additionally, interacting with animals is calming, which assists in lowering the cortisol hormone levels. Higher cortisol hormone levels in response to stress have been found to be associated with higher treatment dropout rates in drug users involved in residential substance abuse treatment. Therapy animals improve therapeutic alliance and general regard for the treatment environment.

Another benefit of AAT is the human and animal bond, which increases a person’s ability to connect with others.

Since shame is a powerful emotion associated with addiction, many people in treatment are reluctant to share because of perceived judgment from others. AAT allows a person to bond with animals, gain acceptance and then begin to interact and open up to others.

The interaction with a therapy animal while undergoing treatment for SUDs helps to improve rapport with a counselor, reduce anxiety and increase the chances of successful treatment recovery. Animals encourage people to be more physically active, can suppress feelings of loneliness, allowing for the belief that recovery is possible.

Dogs are the most commonly used animals in AAT for people with SUDs.

Dog-assisted activities include physical and verbal interactions such as feeding, talking, grooming, petting, playing with the animal, as well as training the animal. Dogs help patients develop trust, establish boundaries and gain self-esteem. It has also been found that interaction with therapy dogs helps reestablish the natural neurochemical pathways in the brain. During therapy sessions with canines, “the release of the powerful neurotransmitter, dopamine, mimics the effects of an amphetamine or cocaine high. Other mood-enhancing chemicals, such as oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, are also released during human-dog interactions” ( Dog-assisted therapy is a way for patients to experience positive emotions, as well as develop good habits and routines.

Equine-assisted therapy is a type of AAT in which horses play a part in the treatment process.

This treatment approach requires those in recovery to regularly perform activities involving horses, including riding, handling and grooming under the direction of a licensed mental health professional. The benefits of equine-assisted therapy include reduced aggression, reduced anxiety and depression, improved self-esteem and confidence, and development of healthy relationships.

While the discovery animals benefitting patients in therapy dates as far back as the 1800s, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that practitioners began including animals in mental health treatment. It has only been within the last 10 years that animal-assisted therapy has been used in conjunction with substance abuse treatment. Given the recent onset of this therapeutic technique in conjunction with other treatment modalities, it will be exciting to see more research in the future on the effectiveness of the AAT.