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Amy Johnson May 26, 2010

Are Successful Animal Assisted Interventions All in Our Head?

“We now assume that when psychotherapy results in symptom reduction or experiential change, the brain has, in some way, been altered” (Cozolino).

In the wake of the 1990s “Decade of the Brain,” much of the resulting counseling research suggests moving away from the sole use of talk therapy towards integrating sensory based interventions…particularly with individuals who have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect. The brain’s neural plasticity means that past behavior doesn’t have to dictate current behavior. Neural plasticity is reached at the sensory (mid-brain) level which indicates that alternative modalities may need to be used as an adjunct to talk therapy.

The mid-brain houses emotionality, connection and other sensory perceptions. When you have a highly emotional client in the midst of a crisis or perceived crisis, expecting him to use logic and reason to make appropriate decisions in that moment is futile. Instead, reaching out to that client at a sensory level (through movement, rhythm, art, music, etc.) helps him to regulate his emotions so that he can engage cognitively and linguistically.

Animal assisted therapy can help create new positive neural pathways through a few of its basic tenets including 1) love and attunement, 2) touch, 3) relationships and 4) experiential learning. In the interest of space, I’ll just give a basic overview of how these tenets can penetrate the mid-brain and will go over them more in depth over the next few weeks. First, love and belonging is a basic need for everyone. Dogs have an uncanny ability to share unconditional love regardless of age, appearance or past. Being in the presence of such love allows the client to feel safe and less inhibited, allowing for deeper exploration and growth potential. The second aspect of touch is vital for human existence. Clients, particularly those in residential placement, prisons, hospitals or who are just alone and are not able to experience physical contact often have higher levels of depression or sadness. The skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin which is the hormone for social bonding. Whereas cortisol hypes up the brain when stressed, oxytocin calms the brain. When released during positive social interactions, oxytocin permits expressions of vulnerable behaviors. Third, relationships with the dogs (or other animal) allow clients to “practice” their relationships with humans.

We had a young adjudicated female in our animal assisted therapy program who said, after 6 weeks with her dog, “this is the first relationship I’ve ever had and you know, it wasn’t that bad.” Finally, social skills and empathy need to be experienced, not just explained. The clients / participants need to feel the behavior and experience the emotions that go along with helping or connecting to another living being. These elements allow the mid-brain areas which have been adversely affected by trauma to begin to heal, allowing new neuronal pathways to be generated moving up toward the cortex (problem solving, linguistic) areas. This is what allows the person to enhance self regulation abilities as well as decrease fear, anxiety and anger related disorders – the most common disabilities leading anyone to seek counseling.

Cozolino, L. (2002). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Building and rebuilding the human brain. W.W. Norton Publishing. New York, NY.

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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