Animal-Assisted Therapy: Treatment for Behavioral Issues in Teens

How Our Pets Can Teach Us A Thing or Two

Most pet owners can tell you of the positive impact their animal makes on their life. Animals enhance our physical, emotional and social well being. This understanding that prompted therapists and mental health professionals to integrate animals into the treatment process for teens and young adults who face a number of behavioral, emotional, and social problems. Animal-assisted therapy has shown itself to be an effective treatment for behavioral issues in teens.

What is animal-assisted therapy?

The Delta Society, an international organization that certifies and registers pets for therapy, defines animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as, “goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process.” Animals used in AAT are not service animals but rather have been specially trained for therapy, as have the therapists who handle them in using animals as a tool for treatment. The main focus of AAT is improving the student’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive functioning.

AAT is a form of therapy that can be integrated into a variety of theories, which is one of the reasons why it has proven so successful. The most common animals used in therapy are dogs and horses, but other animals such as llamas, cats, and dolphins have been incorporated as well.

Animal-assisted therapy improves mood, behavior and social functioning.

Animal assisted therapy can reduce anxiety, elevate mood, and improve behavior. After just twenty minutes with a therapy animal, research has shown a significant decrease in the hormones related to stress—cortisol, adrenaline, and aldosterone—and an increase in endorphins and the “feel good” hormones—dopamine and oxytocin.

In a therapeutic setting, interacting with animals can:

Change behavior for the better. Working with animals improves self-esteem and creates a sense of responsibility. Engaging in the acts of petting and grooming works to develop a bond between the person and animal. By providing care for the animal, an individual in turn gets affection and acceptance, which they then shift their behavior towards receiving.

Improve participation in treatment. AAT breaks down the barriers between patient and therapist because AAT doesn’t seem like traditional therapy. Participants develop feelings of achievement in relation to their identified goals and objectives. Because they value their relationship and time spent with the animal, they also begin to take a more active role in their treatment, take punishments seriously, and work harder to make progress.

Promote communication. Individuals in AAT feel more open to talking about feelings and thoughts in the presence of an animal, especially teens and young adults who have a reluctance to open up. The therapeutic process of AAT is less threatening and participants feel more comfortable disclosing information. Individuals also learn to communicate better in a non-verbal way. Taking their signals from the animal, they exhibit body language and behaviors that a therapist can then use in the treatment process.

Develop social skills. The behavioral cues an individual learns in AAT can be translated into his or her everyday life. It can help to develop trust, get along with peers, and gain information about how to form and maintain healthy relationships.

Animal-assisted therapy provides a non-judgemental opportunity for individuals to work out their issues. For teens and young adults who are generally resistant to therapy, AAT can provide an opportunity to engage individuals in a way that does not feel imposing. The positive results of animal-assisted therapy have been well documented, and as the growing body of research continues to shed light on its positive effects, more therapists and treatment centers will begin to incorporate AAT as a way of improving treatment effectiveness.

To learn more about effective treatment for behavioral issues in teens including animal-assisted therapy, contact Rites of Passage Wilderness at (800)794-0980.