What is Animal-Assisted Therapy? 

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a clinically proven therapy that involves patient interaction with animals. AAT falls under the clinical umbrella of what is known as Animal Assisted Intervention - treatment that refers to any psychological therapy that involves animals (commonly referred to as emotional support animals)  in a ‘therapeutic context.’  Several types of commonly used animals in AAT include dogs, pigs, horses, and less commonly, exotic animals such as dolphins. However, the most commonly used animals (especially in troubled teen therapy) are dogs and horses. 

AAT has many applications in the clinical field, including improving one’s social, behavioral, cognitive, mental, and emotional faculties. 

AAT is most commonly used in troubled teen therapy as a useful way to improve the mental health of its participants and has even been proven to provide physiologically improvements such as recalibrating blood pressure and restoring hormone levels. 

Below is a brief, albeit comprehensive, dive into animal-assisted therapy, including the various types, their applications relating to mental health, and the different types of psychiatric issues and disorders they are generally used to treat. 

What Types of Mental Health-Related Issues Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Treat?

Animal-assisted therapy is not a newly developed treatment. Equine therapy, for instance, has existed in one form or another for thousands of years. That said, animal-assisted therapy is also a comprehensively researched treatment proven to effectively treat a myriad of disabilities, including behavioral and mental health disorders.

As previously discussed, AAT can be invaluable in treating things common disorders such as depression and anxiety. But it is also effective in treating more difficult to treat illnesses such as ADHD and PTSD. 

For the sake of conciseness, we are limiting the following discussion to the treatment’s most commonly used applications as it pertains to the treatment of troubled youth.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Due to its calming and anxiety-reducing elements (especially regarding equine therapy), AAT is popularly used to treat ADHD. Studies have shown that children who received both AAT and CBT had significantly reduced ADHD-related symptoms compared to receiving only cognitive therapy (CBT, a popular treatment used in many troubled teen programs). Studies proved this only to be the case with equine therapy; ‘dog-assisted therapy did not relieve symptoms in long-term symptoms in long-term treatment.’

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

Science has proven (time and time again) that animals have both ‘direct' and 'indirect' effects on a person’s psychological, social, and biological responses. Thus, AAT effectively treats the severe symptoms of PTSD, including avoidance, re-living trauma, and drastic changes in beliefs due to one’s trauma. 

Animal-assisted therapy is proven to provide participants with ‘direct physiological effects,’ including decreasing high blood pressure and heart rate, and thus, their anxiety.AAT is also provenly effective in providing ‘indirect effects,’ such as increasing participants' desire for social interaction. Both of these direct and indirect effects are invaluable in the treatment of PTSD.

Autism and Spectrum Disorder 

While clinical trials on its effects on autism and spectrum disorder are, thus far, scarce, there have been trials that suggest it may reduce symptoms relating to the autism spectrum. According to five out of nine reviewed and published trials, AAT may effectively treat spectrum-related symptoms such as ‘irritability, hyperactivity, and aggressiveness.’

The Most Commonly Used Animals in the Treatment of Troubled Youth

Many different animal-assisted therapies include a range of animals, including more typical animals, including dogs, horses, and pigs, to more exotic creatures like dolphins. For the sake of brevity, we’re going only to discuss the ones most prevalent to troubled teen therapy (dogs and horses).

Dog-Assisted Therapy

Dog-assisted therapy is the second most (behind equine therapy) used animal-assisted therapy in treating troubled teens. The therapy involves participants taking care of (grooming, brushing, etc.) and bonding with dogs. Participants are typically encouraged to think of themselves as the dog’s adopted parent, thus establishing and encouraging responsibility and bond-building between themselves and the dog. 

According to proponents of canine-assisted therapy, the treatment is effective in (but not limited to):

  • Helping teens become independent
  • Providing a sense of calm 
  • Providing a sense of safety and security
  • Helping teens learn from their mistakes
  • Assisting teens in gaining empathy 
  • Improving self-worth
  • Provides repetitive experiences - repetitive experiences of ‘connection-break-repair’ and healthy ‘give-and-take’ experiences

Equine Therapy

Equine therapy, similar to canine therapy, involves participants taking care of (grooming, feeding, brushing, etc.) and building emotional bonds with horses. 

There are a few fundamental reasons why equine therapy is more popularly used by troubled teen programs than canine therapy (aside from the aforementioned fear of dogs).

For one, horses are more intimidating and imposing creatures; thus, the participant is forced to gain the animal's trust during their physical interactions with one another. 

Another major distinction of equine therapy (and why troubled teen therapy programs so popularly use it) is that participants can ride and build a deeper connection with the animal. 

Thousands of years of evolution have made horses incredibly effective at given their rider emotional feedback. Horses (especially while being ridden) are highly adepts at sensing their rider’s emotions, such as anxiety, panic, worry, and anger. This added emotional connection between participant and animal makes it provenly effective in treating teen’s anxiety - the very practice of handling a horse encourages a person to be present as they work through whatever negative emotional issues they may have.