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Can Therapy Dogs Help with Addiction?

IMG_7651 (1583x2048)You may have heard of trained therapy dogs being used to help people with specific health problems—including individuals with cancer, heart problems, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When you remember that addiction is a health or physical issue, it makes sense that therapy dogs can be a useful component in an addiction treatment program. How?

Several research studies have proven that interacting with dogs can reduce stress responses, anxiety, fear, and other nervous disorders—which are all feelings that can lead an addict back to drugs or alcohol. Other benefits include:

  • lowered blood pressure and heart rate,
  • increased beta-endorphin levels, which reduces physical pain,
  • reduced feelings of anger, hostility, and tension, and
  • increased feelings of empowerment, trust, patience and self-esteem.

Working with a therapy dog can also help improve other behaviors that someone with a substance use disorder may have developed during his or her worst periods. It can help:

  • stabilize and improve the a person’s social skills as he or she learns gentle ways to communicate with and handle the dog.
  • give a person in recovery responsibilities, such as feeding and grooming.
  • brighten a person’s mood due to the pleasure and affection gained while playing with the dog.
  • improve a person’s ability to express feelings by identifying how an animal might feel in a certain situation.
  • reduce anxiety and fear by forming a bond of love and comfort with the dog.

One expert points out that human-to-human therapy can be improved when a therapy pet is involved, especially when a client is resistant. First, the desire to be with the therapy pet can sometimes override the client’s defenses. Second, the bonding and trust relationship that occurs between dogs and humans can help facilitate a bond with the therapist, through transference.

Finally, remember that active addiction to substances may damage a person’s self-esteem and may have damaged their family’s sense of safety and trust. Many addicts report feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness. Therapy dogs provide unconditional love and comfort. They accept people and don’t judge; as simple as that sounds, such trust can make a difference.

Obviously, working with a therapy dog isn’t for everyone. Clients in recovery would have to be screened for a history of violence, animal abuse, animal phobias or allergies. But Horizon Health Services has seen, and believes in, the potential of service animals in addiction treatment. Our team of Golden Retrievers are carefully chosen for their calm demeanors and patient dispositions, at our various locations.