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Having a pet is a great thing. But did you know that aside from being a furry, lovely family member, they can also be used to improve your mental and physical health? You are probably wondering how dogs are used in professional counseling and therapy. Look at it as a partnership where you meet your dog’s need for attention while they help you meet yours. This presence of a human’s best friend offers a unique emotional support and presence that traditional therapy lacks. 

What Are Animal-Assisted Interventions?

For therapists, the use of animals, more precisely dogs, has gained significant recognition for enhancing patients’ well-being. Pet therapy and animal-assisted therapy (AAT) are two of the most popular animal-assisted interventions. Pet therapy is a more traditional approach that focuses on overall support and companionship. On the other hand, AAT is a more structured approach that is goal-oriented and addresses a specific health condition. 

What Do Dogs Do in Therapy?

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 44.6% of US households own at least one dog. That is 62 million homes! This number shows the unmatched unconditional love and empathy people enjoy from their dogs. You can clearly see how people can use this during a therapy session. Apart from comfort, their presence can also help break barriers hindering people from healing. They can just be there present, cuddle with the patient, or be part of exercises trained professionals supervise and guide. 

What Disorders and Conditions Can Be Treated with the Help of Dogs?

Dogs can help with many mental and physical health issues, showing the versatility they provide to patients. But most commonly, dogs are used in professional counseling and therapy for: 

  • Mental Health Disorders: Depression, anxiety, and PTSD can be treated more effectively thanks to this type of therapy. Their calming effects are especially great for trauma survivors and veterans.
  • Alcohol and drug rehab: People going through a detox from substances often experience symptoms that can be easier to bear with the help of a compassionate companion.
  • Developmental Disorders: AAT has been especially helpful for children with autism. Interactions between a child and a dog foster social skills, reduce anxiety, and provide the child with a companion who will never judge. 
  • Neurological disorders: Older people also benefit from being around dogs. People who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease will experience moments of mental stimulation and happiness when they interact with trained dogs. This will lead to improved mood and, in some cases, better memory. 
  • Physical Health Challenges: Dogs help people with mental health, but the benefits don’t stop there. Physical rehabilitation centers use dogs to encourage recovering patients to engage in physical activity. 

What Are the Benefits of Dog-Assisted Therapy?

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, 84% of people who have PTSD reported an improvement after being paired with a service dog. In addition to that, 40% of them managed to reduce their medication use. This is proof of the profound impact of dogs on people’s lives. Simple interactions with dogs reduce stress and blood pressure, release oxytocin, and reduce the amount of cortisol. This instantly makes you feel better and also aids in long-term mental health. These benefits will only be magnified during dog-assisted therapy and will also help you bond with your pet on a deeper level. Dogs are important parts of hospitals and nursing homes, where people feel the most depressed and alone. 

The benefits of how dogs are used in professional counseling and therapy are evident for many disorders and conditions

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in Practice

When wanting to learn how dogs are used in professional counseling and therapy, it’s best to take AAT as an example. Hospitals, schools, and private therapy organizations use dogs with great success. 

In schools, dogs are very helpful to children on the autism spectrum, helping them with their social skills. Therapists achieve this through interactive play sessions. Of course, the activities are guided and supervised by a therapist experienced in the issue at hand. 

Likewise, rehabilitation centers use dogs as assistants in physical therapy. They have proven to be great motivators for patients recovering from surgeries or injuries to exercise. Aside from improving the patient’s physical health, they also make exercise more fun and enjoyable. 

Challenges and Ethical Considerations

The use of dogs in therapy isn’t without flaws either. The challenges include: 

  • Dogs need to undergo rigorous training from a young age to assist in therapy sessions. So, adopting a dog to do this might not be the best idea because they need to be trained from when they are a puppy. Certain dog breeds are gentle by nature, and these are the ones usually used for this purpose. But even labrador retrievers need training from a young age. This way, they can handle unexpected situations and interact safely with the patients. 
  • The client’s safety is very important. This means dealing with allergies, fear of dogs, etc. 
  • Even though they might not know it, these dogs are actually working hard. This should not interfere with their well-being—they still need breaks, healthcare, and a loving home. 

Animal Assisted Therapy Is Becoming More Accessible

As dogs are used in professional counseling and therapy and this method is becoming increasingly popular, more and more people recognize its effectiveness and innovative nature. More importantly, it helps people who don’t respond well to traditional therapy, leaving this as their last hope. By making it more widely accessible, AAT can help more people change their lives. For instance, therapists expand its accessibility through online therapy. Although there might not be an element of a dog’s physical presence, these online sessions still prove to be a success. Also, more communities are acknowledging this therapy’s effectiveness, so many of them are trying their best to integrate this practice into their local centers and therapist ordinations. 


This type of therapy is getting more and more accessible

Training Requirements and Certification for Therapy Dogs

Every dog that will be part of an AAT program needs to go through training and certification. That includes the following: 

  • Basic obedience training is a necessity for every dog getting ready for AAT. This includes basic commands like sit, stay, come, down, and heel. This ensures that the dog responds to the handler’s commands instantly. 
  • Dogs need to be social in order to be effective during treatment. This starts when they are still puppies, where they get lots of positive interactions with humans. With time, the socialization gets more specific, putting dogs into scenarios where they will meet different people, making sure that they remain calm and friendly. 
  • Dogs need to be healthy. Regular vet visits and good hygiene are mandatory, especially for people with weak immune systems or allergies. 
  • Dogs that have undergone everything mentioned can get a certification as therapy dogs. Various organizations offer this type of certificate, the most popular ones in the US being Therapy Dogs International and Pet Partners. 

Animal-Assisted Therapy Is Not Always Effective

While this type of therapy offers various benefits, it’s crucial to realize that it is not a universal solution. Some people may not experience the expected outcomes, or they may have fear, allergies, or discomfort around animals. All this will limit its effectiveness. If this occurs, it is important to have an alternative treatment plan in mind. 

For those struggling with substance abuse that didn’t get the expected results from AAT, seeking help from specialized rehabilitation centers is a must. The substance abuse statistics give cause for concern across the USA. For example, in 2021, in New Jersey only, there were reported 2,805 overdose deaths, primarily from fentanyl and heroin. The state also reported a significant incidence of alcohol abuse, which resulted in the highest rate of treatment episodes.

One of the top-tier treatment centers that offer alcohol and drug rehab for those needing more specialized attention is We Level Up Lawrenceville NJ. This facility offers a wide range of services that deal with addiction while addressing mental health disorders at the same time. The center is also in a beautiful location, giving visitors the opportunity to deal with their problems in a peaceful environment.

Predictions For the Animal-Assisted Therapy

As the field expands, it is only normal to expect more advances. In the near future, we could see:

  • Better effectiveness: AAT is still relatively new, so there are no scientifically proven settings, conditions, or session frequencies that result in the most significant outcomes. Further research is needed to develop a more standardized therapy practice. 
  • Availability of long-term impact studies: Again, this type of therapy is new, so the only studies available at the moment are short-term studies, which are less relevant compared to those with a longer duration. In the future, we will get deeper insights into the results of different AAT methods, frequencies, and session durations. 
  • Technological integration: The future is all about technology and AI. With time, people will combine virtual reality or mobile apps with animal-assisted therapy, making it more effective and accessible. 

Alt: People in an office setting looking at a dog

Caption: Technology will make this therapy more easy to use 

The Takeaway on How Dogs Are Used in Professional Counseling and Therapy

As you can see, we all need the healing power of companionship. Thanks to the unconditional love of a dog, we can see why and how dogs are used in professional counseling and therapy. Even though it is a new practice, it has already gained traction. More and more professionals will hire these new four-legged colleagues and, thanks to them, enhance the mental health of their patients. 


KW: dogs are used in professional counseling and therapy


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