“Although humans inherit a biological bias that permits them to feel anger, jealousy, selfishness, envy and to be rude, aggressive or violent, they inherit an even stronger biological bias for kindness, compassion, cooperation, love and nurture – especially towards those in need.” – Jerome Kagan
In my last blog, I gave an overview of the Animal Assisted Therapy tenets that are used to help individuals create new positive neural pathways. These tenets lead to new ways of thinking and being and include 1) love 2) touch, 3) relationships and 4) experiential learning. I’d like to address these tenets individually over the next few weeks, beginning today with love.
Regardless of your theoretical framework for practicing therapy, the need to love and be loved is transtheoretical. “Love ” is tantamount to positive emotional health and overall well-being. The need to feel valued by others (and for youth, feeling valued by adults in particular) is an innate trait. In fact, for youth, an attachment to adults is a “prerequisite to learning from them.”1
Love encompasses feelings of closeness and genuine appreciation and concern. Love leads to attachment, which fosters a sense of stability and safety. While as therapists it is not appropriate to “love” or “attach” to our clients (and vice versa), these same constructs apply on some level to establishing therapeutic rapport. Carl Rogers uses the terms unconditional positive regard, empathy and genuineness. A large research study was conducted that evaluated the dozens of theories and techniques utilized by clinicians and found that it was the element of rapport and feeling heard and understood that made the difference in treatment for those wanting change. For many, having a dog in the room expedites that relationship building process.
Many dogs have an uncanny ability to demonstrate unconditional positive regard, genuineness and a perceived empathy. (The debate is still open as to whether dogs actually feel empathy or if they are merely responding to our non-verbals.) Social animals such as horses, dogs and even rats are the most responsive to human affection Interaction with animals is remarkable because they do not have to love us, respond to us or interact with us, but they do. Even the dogs benefit from the interaction. Physiological studies on shelter dogs have found that they respond positively when interacting with humans.
Animals / dogs do not only love the easy-to-love, but they are able to reach through rough exteriors and love the harder to love. This allows those who are receiving the unconditional love to feel special. This might be the first time many clients have experienced unconditional love. Not only do the clients receive the love from the co-therapists, but they are able to practice loving in return. For those who have attachment issues or strong fears of rejection, utilizing a dog, rabbit, rat or cat to perform gestures of love safely and perhaps discover that the experience is not as painful or scary as they may have perceived it would be.
The animal assisted therapy research has determined repeatedly that the loving bonds between humans and animals create attachments which are beneficial for achieving therapeutic gains. This makes many animals good co-therapists. The biological need for love and attunement is passed from human to human or human to animal by smiling, holding, moving toward and touching one another. In our dog program, our troubled youth have the opportunity to help rescue dogs in need. This is another opportunity to express (and practice) love and affection safely. In the words of Lao Tzu, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
1 Brendtro, L., Mitchell, M. & McCall, H. (2009). Deep Brain Learning: Pathways to Potential with Challenging Youth. Albion, MI. Starr Commonwealth.
2 Kruger, K. & Serpell, J. (2006). Animal-assisted interventions in mental health: Definitions and theoretical foundations. Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. Second Edition. Elsevier. Pp. 29-30
Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.