ACA Blog

Amy Johnson
Jul 01, 2010

Touching Our Hearts

I would like to continue with the second Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) tenet used to help individuals create new positive neural pathways; developing new ways of thinking and being.To recap, these tenets are love, touch, relationships and experiential learning. Todays message is on the power of touch in AAT.

Touch is the largest sensory pathway and can be a powerful means of providing support and soothing stress. Human touch connects to the core of the social brain and conveys emotional warmth. Of course, physical contact exposes an individual to vulnerability so touch is only effective once trust is secure. Contact with companion animals can provide the impression of a safe environment as well as a non-invasive opportunity to hug and pet a living, loving being. This contact can create some of the same neurological effects by activating the affiliative centers in the brain (Brendtro, 2009).

Research shows that the act of petting a dog lowers cortisol levels, systolic blood pressure, heart rate, triglyceride and cholesterol levels (Coakley, 2009) as well as reduces anxiety and inhibition levels, allowing clients to share more with the counselor. Cortisol, a stress hormone, hypes up the brain when stressed, oxytocin, in turn, calms the brain.

It is the skin to skin contact (whether human to human or human to companion animal) that releases oxytocin, the hormone associated with attachment; which is such a struggle for so many of our clients. Oxytocin promotes social bonding and allows individuals to let their guards down and ultimately trust the therapist. In other words, if a client is feeling unsure or hesitant about treatment, it will take longer to establish therapeutic rapport, stalling progress. Having a friendly dog in the room to interact with can expedite this process. Dogs are emotionally available and oftentimes place paws on the legs of clients, inviting them to encircle them and cry into their fur.

For many clients, touch is taboo. For example, clients with an abuse history or when working with adolescents or those in detention, touching is not typically acceptable, leaving them starved for needed physical contact. There are youth who will intentionally become aggressors so that they can be physically managed by staff and thus receiving that powerful skin to skin connection. Having a dog can fill that void. Additionally, when working with juvenile sex offenders, we can use the dogs as an opportunity to talk about appropriate touching. The youth with whom we work frequently comment that once they can hug their dog, all of their worries fade.

The power of touch is more than just comfort. For so many, it is recognizing that one is a person and matterseven if it is to a dog.

Brendtro, L., Mitchell, M. & McCall, H. (2009). Deep Brain Learning: Pathways to Potential with Challenging Youth. Albion, MI. Starr Commonwealth.
Coakley, A. B. & Mahoney, E. K. (2009). Creating a therapeutic and healing environment with a pet therapy program. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 15, 141-146. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2009.05.004

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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