Canine-assisted learning utilizes dogs to promote healing that is growing in popularity. The presence of the animal may help a person to relax and become more open. It may also incite them to speak freely of their experiences while examining their emotional and mental states more thoroughly. Canine-assisted learning may also help to increase well-being, confidence, introspection and motivation while decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression. Used together with other treatment modalities, canine-assisted learning can be a positive and beneficial component of addiction treatment.
At a time when you may feel the most vulnerable, lonely and engulfed by a sense of isolation, it may bring you comfort to spend a little time with man’s best friend. Canine-assisted learning has been increasing in its popularity, due to its notable track record as a diverse and compassionate accompaniment within treatment programs. What is unique, is that this interaction can go beyond comfort, bringing added you value to treatment.
Addiction medicine is continuously changing, and one facet that has broadened greatly is the recognition of and pursuit for individualized care. No two people are alike, nor are the situations that precede and contribute to their addiction. Because of this, every person’s treatment plan should be developed and adapted to their specific situation. Canine-assisted learning may be integrated into an individual’s personalized treatment plan. More and more facilities are becoming pet-friendly rehabs. Canine-assisted learning may aid a person in building acceptance and self-confidence and support them in overcoming instances of trauma as well as treating co-occurring disorders.
What Is Canine-Assisted Learning?
Imagine for a moment a person’s life within an addiction. When they look around, they’re likely impacted by the many ways addiction has torn apart their life—once pleasurable activities are without meaning and relationships strained or non-existent. Now imagine in this time when it feels like everyone might be against you, including yourself, that an inquisitive and loyal creature comes up to you and gladly displays you affection and attention. As simple as this is, the effect may be widely impactful and is only one small facet of the profound benefit canine-assisted learning may have within treatment.
Canine-assisted learning is a specific form of animal-assisted learning that includes interaction with dogs. Often attributed to an American nurse named Elaine Smith, who worked in England, it’s reported that Ms. Smith returned to the states in 1976 and implemented a training program after witnessing the favorable results abroad, as reported by ScienceDaily.
How Does A Session Work?
Each animal in the program is thoroughly trained, most typically including both agility and obedience training. During the sessions, the animals will be accompanied by their trainers, individuals who have worked closely with each animal and fully understand the process; they will be able to answer any questions during this time or instruct you should you need assistance. Rehab patients will not be forced to participate. There could be, for instance, those who are allergic to dogs or exhibit a fear of them.
Sessions vary in length, and oftentimes there may be a second animal present. During a session, participants will engage the dog(s) in several ways, including obedience work, socialization activities, and aiding a dog in navigating an agility course. Participants may also groom, walk or play with the animal, or simply pet them.
One fact that is unique about these animals is that in many instances the dogs may be rescues, having experienced neglect, trauma, or maltreatment within their lives. This can become a powerful tool and a phenomenal example of change and healing, as participants, upon hearing of these past circumstances often begin to open up regarding their own painful pasts. This promotes healing and grants treatment providers a better understanding of their patient’s unique history and concerns.
What Are The Benefits Of Canine-Assisted Learning?
By nature, dogs are attentive, accepting and comforting creatures, approaching each interaction in an unbiased and open way. This is something that can be vastly beneficial to an individual with low self-confidence who is struggling to recover from substance abuse and the chronic negativity it may impart.
One research paper explains the benefit and the role of these animals, asserting that “the animals themselves are the health intervention. They enhance positive feelings in people, raise oxytocin levels, encourage clients out of emotional numbness, and foster trusting and non-judgmental relationships.” Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of connectedness, a sense of bonding, relaxation, and overall psychological stability; it is also purported to be involved within the formation of trust and generosity, as explained by PsychCentral—elements which may all be useful.
In addition, canine-assisted learning may help:
- Increase optimism
- Promote physical activity
- Heighten focus and awareness
- Promote wellness
- Balance moods
- Reduce anxiety
- Combat depression
- Relieve stress
- Decrease fatigue
- Lower blood pressure
- Decrease pain
- Encourage self-confidence
- Aid in introspection
- Promote a sense of responsibility
- Help to establish boundaries
- Improve communication skills
- Improve interpersonal skills
- Increase positive social interactions
- Increase motivation
Build Bonds: Within a session, the dog may act as a neutral moderator within the conversation, initially offering a distraction for the patient, allowing them to become more relaxed and comfortable. Together, these elements may help to facilitate conversations and openness more quickly than in a traditional clinical setting, allowing the patient to begin accepting, changing and healing more quickly.
Aid Sociability: Some research suggests that canine-assisted learning may help a person change their perspective of their social appeal, putting it in a more positive light, a benefit that can carry forward as a person leaves treatment, entering into their life within recovery. This may aid them in becoming more confident and open within positive social settings, such as with family, friends or within various self-help support groups.
Benefit Families: Canine-assisted learning may also be a positive and healing component of family programs, as family members often report an enhanced sense of calm, wellbeing or happiness after sessions. The presence of the dog is often a good ice breaker and helps a family draw closer within their time together, creating an environment and attitudes that may be more conducive for constructive and positive communication with personal and familial growth.
Address Co-occurring Disorders: Canine-assisted learning may also aid in co-occurring disorder treatment for various mood and behavioral disorders, anxiety and depression, or instances of trauma, neglect or abandonment which may have preceded substance abuse, making it even a more dynamic tool for individualized treatment.
How Canine-Assisted Learning in Addiction Recovery May Help
Not an evidence-based practice for substance use disorders, canine-assisted learning may still help some patients as they progress through recovery. Though research on the subject is still widespread, and in some ways differing, one element which is widely held, as noted within a paper lead-authored by Katherine A. Kruger, MSW, Animal-Assisted Interventions in Mental Health: Definitions and Theoretical Foundations is that change is often incited by “patients being able to reveal or discuss difficult thoughts, feelings, motivations, conflicts, or events by projecting them onto a real or fictional animal.” This is to say, a person within treatment may look to an animal and personify the creature, using the dog’s presence, demeanor or reaction to certain situations as a way to initiate certain conversations on more difficult subjects, that actually speak to the client’s own personal struggles.
Canine-assisted learning aids an individual in recognizing and developing areas that are in need of cognitive or behavioral changes. Specifically, the Kruger paper writes,
Dogs are very intuitive and receptive creatures, providing fairly immediate reactions to a person’s mental and emotional states, due to the way they seem to “sense” a person’s state of mind or intentions. This aspect of healing has been compared to a biofeedback machine—the dog provides real-time reactions to a person’s mood. For instance, if a person becomes anxious, the dog may become more agitated or attentive, granting an individual an opportunity to become aware of their anxiety, so that they can work towards decreasing it. The dog may aid in this process, as they may become more visibly relaxed as a person’s anxiety wanes.
Cumulatively, though this field is yet progressing, canine-assisted learning has the potential to be a viable and impactful vessel for change within a treatment program.
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ResearchGate — Animal-Assisted Interventions in Mental Health: Definitions and Theoretical Foundations
Path International — History of Animal Assisted Therapies