The Power of Pet Therapy
By Allison White, ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D
Nov. 23, 2016

I remember when I was seven, my Great-Uncle Benji said to my parents, “Allison needs a dog.” It was at that time, my life changed. I was a very quiet, reserved kid, but dogs brought me out of my shell. They were with me during good times, painful times and major life events—and loved me no matter how I reacted to these situations. They remained stable forces in my life, even during the darkest turmoil.

Nowadays, I work with clients who live with depression, anxiety and addictions, and they don’t always feel like there is hope. It’s hard for them to see light in the midst of their darkness, and peace seems so far away. But when I use my dogs during pet therapy visits, I see how animals brighten up a person’s mood, even if it’s for a short time. That moment allows a small trickle of light into that person’s heart, which may not have been there before.

During one session in particular, a client asked if she could get on the floor because she wanted to talk to my therapy dog about something “very important.” She buried her head into my dog’s fur and talked about the horrible week she had endured. Stroking my dog’s fur, my client was overcome with a sense of calm in a way I could not have accomplished by merely talking with her. No judgments, no expectations—just a furry hug.

When we’re facing despair, loneliness, chronic health issues, depression, addictions, or anything beyond our ability to cope, a pet can help ease the pain. He or she can give us a reason to get out of our thoughts to focus on a sense of purpose. The relationship we have with our pets is real and symbiotic—what I give to my pets comes back to me in ways that can’t be measured.

Research shows the benefits of pet therapy (in fact, its first known use dates back to the 9th century!). Boris Levinson was the first clinician to truly introduce the value of animals in a therapeutic environment. In the 1960s, Levinson reported that having his dog present at talk therapy sessions led to increased communication, increased self-esteem and increased willingness to disclose difficult experiences. Ever since, people have been turning to pets for comfort and support during periods of emotional turmoil. Hugging and speaking with a pet who won’t judge you for your feelings or thoughts is cathartic and helps people get through rough times. Pets also reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression, giving people a reason to get up in the morning. Other benefits are unconditional love, acceptance, a “buddy” that encourages physical activity, which leads to healthier lifestyles.

If you’re unable to own a pet, there are many ways to reap the benefits of a pet relationship. Volunteering at a local shelter or helping rescue groups or pet therapy organizations such as Pet Partners (a national organization that promotes positive human-animal interactions) are ways to save pets’ lives, and possibly your own.

Allison is a licensed clinical social worker with 25 years of experience in the mental health field. She has worked at BJC Behavioral Health for 23 years and has been a clinical supervisor of a continuous treatment team for the past 21 years. Allison has been a volunteer for Support Dog’s Inc. for the past 9 years, has had two certified TOUCH therapy dogs, one of which was also certified in animal-assisted crisis response.