Animal-assisted Therapy: An Undeniable Bond

Today, we’re speaking with Wendy Nystrom, one of our Licensed Mental Health Counselors with a degree in Expressive Art and Counseling Psychology. Wendy is a special member of our team as she also has a very special friend, her dog Zorro.

Zorro is not just a companion to Wendy, but also a companion to many of those who come to Wendy seeking counseling.

Pet Therapy, or Animal-assisted Therapy, is a unique, but growing trend within therapy and mental health counseling that we here at Mindful Therapy Group are proud to be a part of. We have undeniable bonds with many of the animals in our lives and these bonds can be used to help facilitate therapeutic outcomes as well.

We’re going to ask Wendy a few questions about her experience and interest in the matter and then give some more insights into what animal-assisted therapy is and how you can use it to your own benefit.

Wendy has used it in her own practice where she specializes in such areas as children, adolescents, couples, and families as well as art, music, drama, and play therapy.

An Interview with Wendy Nystrom and Zorro

Let’s get started with the interview:

1)      Hi Wendy, can you tell us a little about your background and what motivated you to get involved with pet therapy?

I began my therapy career working with high needs children and their families. Because of extensive trauma histories, people were often seen as threatening, but even kids with severe behavioral problems would calm and gentle when around animals.

Consequently, when I did get a dog, I chose one who would do well as a therapy dog.

2)      How many pets do you own and what are their names?

One pet, a 22 lb. Japanese Chin named Zorro.

3)      What kind of benefits have you seen from patients involved with pet therapy?

I’ve seen kids with ADHD and with behavioral challenges be able to calm and focus more. I’ve also seen interacting with Zorro benefit children and adults with anxiety, depression, or trauma histories.

Add the fact that he’s always so happy to see people means they start the session feeling happy about at least one thing.

4)      This is a growing trend among both standard health care and mental health professionals. Why do you think the bond between animals and patients has such a beneficial effect?

Animals care unconditionally. It has been shown that petting an animal releases oxytocin in the brain. Having natural mood-lifting chemicals released can help people be more mindful and think of possibilities.

5)      Dogs tend to be the most common when practicing animal-assisted therapy, but are there others you have worked with or would recommend?

Dogs are great as they are pack animals. I’ve known a few gregarious cats that might work. I once heard of someone who had a therapy turkey, though I wouldn’t recommend that.

6)      For those cautious about such therapies, or maybe don’t feel they have a particular affinity for animals, what advice would you have?

Possibly check out Reading Rover or other venues where dogs are being used therapeutically.

7)      Thinking about some of our core values here at Mindful Therapy Group, what do you think the connection is between mindfulness, mental health, and our animal friends?

Animals are very much in the present and, unless they’ve had an abuse history, mindful. Petting and interacting with an animal is grounding and helps those I see become a bit more physically present, and therefore, mindful themselves.

8)      Can you share your favorite moment or story regarding your experience practicing animal-assisted therapy?

One individual in particular, who had PTSD, came in distraught one day. Zorro stared at her until she moved her coat, then jumped up to snuggle against her side.

Another 7-year-old girl with behavioral challenges would always calm when interacting with Zorro.

These moments stick out as special in my mind.

9)      Any other comments?

I love how Zorro greets people he knows – like they are his best friend. One particular person I was seeing declared him a “national treasure” :).

Thank you so much, Wendy, for sharing part of your story. Here at Mindful Therapy Group, we have a number of practitioners that have therapy animal companions as well.

What Is Animal-assisted Therapy Exactly?

So what exactly is animal-assisted therapy and why do we encourage it here at our practice? How does it fit into our values of respect, mindfulness, authenticity, hard work, and collaboration?

First off, animal-assisted therapy is not to be confused with more recreational activities such as animals visiting a nursing home or school. These experiences can be enjoyable for everyone involved, but animal-assisted therapy brings the animal into the interaction for the specific purpose of delivering measurable mental health outcomes.

How Does It Help?

As Wendy mentioned, this may be to help individuals relax in therapy upon arriving for the day or help children with learning disabilities focus by being able to take breaks and play with the animal after concentrating particularly hard.

Wendy also pointed out animals’ abilities to be incredibly nonjudgmental and loving, regardless of a person’s mood or history. Especially for people that have experienced trauma, or that have a hard time accepting themselves, it’s very freeing to be in the presence of a creature that loves them so much, no questions asked.

Overall, pet therapy has a wide range of benefits that you may want to consider in your own mental health journey:

-        Building social interaction skills

-        Becoming comfortable engaging with others

-        Improving self-esteem

-        Improving communication skills (especially for those with autism or learning disabilities)

-        Reducing anxiety

-        Becoming more responsible and nurturing

-        Helping you find a happy place

Not Just Any Animal

There are also specific training courses for therapy animals. Just as a dog can be trained to assist a blind person while walking, they can also be trained to provide assistance in mental health situations, greatly improving their benefit during encounters.

When thinking about animal-assisted therapy, we usually think of dogs or horses as these two have been used the most extensively in therapeutic situations. Of course, there are other possibilities. Apparently even turkeys!

The key is to find an animal that you bond with personally. Animals have personalities, just like people, so it’s about finding a good fit for you rather than just thinking, “I should get a do because I hear they are the best.”

That Special Bond

Watch any child interact with an animal and the bond between humans and animals becomes undeniable.

Even when we think of this in reverse, one of the first warning signs in children of violent or antisocial tendencies is the abuse of animals. When we hear of these situations, we immediately know that something is not right in that child’s life.

So it’s no surprise that helping bridge the gap between us and our animal friends can ground us and actually enable us to progress towards a healthier mental life.

If you’d like to learn more about this wonderful approach, or meet any of our “therapets” and their owners, stop on by or give us a call any time :).

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