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The Benefits of Canine-assisted Therapy for Substance Abuse Treatment

Written by Thomas Christiansen

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Dash, PHD

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Last Updated - 07/15/20

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Updated 07/15/2020

Canine therapy includes using dogs to support drug or alcohol rehab. Learn the mental health benefits of including dogs in treatment.

Humans and dogs have been working and living alongside each other for thousands of years. People who have pets or have spent time around animals likely already understand the emotional benefits of being around dogs. More recently, canine or pet therapy has been recognized as a legitimate and beneficial mental health treatment option.

Dogs can help improve a person’s mood, reduce stress and offer comfort and companionship in difficult times. Animal-assisted therapy has become increasingly popular in mental health treatment and can benefit people in drug or alcohol rehab.

What Is Canine-assisted Therapy?

Canine-assisted therapy falls under the umbrella of animal-assisted therapies, where animals are deliberately included in treatment or interventions to improve a person’s health and wellbeing. Canine-assisted therapy is provided by a qualified health professional and trained dogs. Humans and dogs are trained or certified to work together to provide therapeutic interventions.

Dogs can have a positive effect on mental health by reducing feelings of loneliness and relieving stress. There is no specific treatment schedule for canine-assisted therapy and the frequency and duration of sessions can vary from person to person. Canine-assisted therapy can include specific activities like walking, grooming or obedience training. Sessions may be less-structured than traditional therapy sessions and include petting the dog, playing or simply having the dog nearby.

Benefits of Animal-assisted Therapy

The benefits of animal-assisted therapy in some groups are well recognized. The benefits of dog-assisted therapy can range from simply feeling less alone to giving reminders about medications or making physical contact with a person to disrupt a panic attack.

In a mental health setting, animal-assisted therapy is often used for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The benefits of using animals for symptom management can include:

  • Higher levels of social engagement, which is protective of mental health
  • Fewer panic attacks
  • Increased confidence
  • Reduced loneliness and isolation
  • Improved social skills
  • Reducing drug cravings
  • Dogs sensing a panic attack or flashback
  • Having dogs take a person to a safe place if they are not well
  • Helping a person get home if they are in danger

Dogs can also help complete specific tasks that support everyday functioning for someone with a mental illness.

How Animals Support Addiction Recovery

Dogs can be used in addiction recovery and rehab programs to make patients feel comfortable and supported.

Dogs can attend difficult group or individual counseling sessions, can help reduce disruptive behaviors during therapy and can help to enhance therapeutic alliance, which is the relationship between patient and therapist. Animal-assisted therapy in counseling can help support the effectiveness of therapy by keeping patients calm and feeling safe.

Animal therapy for depression can also benefit addiction recovery since people may feel a lesser need to cope with drugs. Dogs can help with sobriety setback prevention by keeping people connected and engaged, but they can also be trained in tasks that disrupt or stop drug use.

Animal-assisted therapy should not be a standalone treatment for substance use disorder, but it can be a helpful and effective add-on treatment option for addressing mental health conditions.

Canine Therapy in Adolescent Treatment

Many mental disorders emerge for the first time during adolescence, but it can sometimes be hard to engage young people in treatment. Animal-assisted therapy has been demonstrated to be a good way to engage adolescents in treatment and to build rapport.

Having dogs present during therapy can make therapy seem more acceptable or less intimidating. Some animal-assisted therapy success stories have come from situations like:

  • Therapy dogs used to de-stress college students during exams or following a stressful event
  • The use of dogs to enhance cognitive behavioral therapy for ADHD in young people
  • Comforting young people after trauma, like a natural disaster or violence

Animal-assisted therapy has also been shown to be effective following trauma, and dogs are often effective for adolescents and children who have experienced a traumatic event.

Does Animal-assisted Therapy Work?

Even though many people enjoy the benefits dogs have on mental health, there are still questions as to whether animal-assisted therapy works. However, animal-assisted therapy has been shown to work in different scenarios, including for people with substance use disorders.

Like many mental health therapies, animal-assisted therapy works best when incorporated as part of a treatment strategy, rather than used on its own. While dogs can provide support and comfort, they cannot directly address underlying psychological or behavioral factors of a mental illness or substance abuse.

Improving mental health through animal-assisted therapy is possible and research has shown it to be effective. These benefits are likely due to how the animals make a person feel more confident in their ability to complete therapy.

Limitations of Animal-assisted Therapy

There can also be several limitations of animal-assisted therapy. For example, being allergic or scared of dogs makes it unlikely that dog-assisted therapy will be of benefit.

Animal-assisted therapy may not be effective for people with substance use disorders in the early stages of recovery, particularly if they are still experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Although there is evidence to support animal-assisted therapy as an effective treatment, more research is required to know exactly how many sessions should be used or if a more structured treatment protocol is necessary.

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What to Look For in a Canine Therapy Program

To improve effectiveness, canine therapy should be conducted by trained professionals and their animals.

When looking for an animal- or canine-assisted therapy programs for addiction, it’s important to make sure programs have adequate training and certifications. It is also important to make sure the dog and trainer have experience in mental health and substance use disorder treatment.

Other factors to consider depend on personal needs and preferences. For example, some people may prefer a more hands-on approach and should look for canine therapy options that offer walking or training activities.

Finding Canine-assisted Therapy Programs

Animal-assisted therapy is increasingly popular and there are many opportunities to incorporate it into treatment. Animal-assisted therapy options are available throughout the country.

Many drug rehab programs or drug addiction therapies offer canine-assisted therapy to support their patients in their recovery. Remember that what works best for one person may not be what will work best for another. Consider personal needs and preferences when looking for a professional treatment facility.

If you or a loved one struggle with a substance use disorder and are ready to address it with professional treatment, contact The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health to speak with a representative who can help you take the first step toward long-term sobriety. You deserve a healthier future, call today.

View Sources

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Knisely, Janet S; Barker, Sandra B; Barker, Randolph T. “Research on Benefits of Canine-Assisted Therapy for Adults in Nonmilitary Settings.” The Army Medical Department Journal. Accessed September 21, 2019.

Motomura, Naoyusa.; Yagi, Takayoshi; Ohyama, Hitomi. “Animal assisted therapy for people with dementia.” Psychogeriatrics, 2004. Accessed September 21, 2019.

Martin, Wesley; et al. “Animal-Assisted Therapy in the Treatment of Substance Dependence.” Anthrozoös, 2009. Accessed September 21, 2019.

Annick, Maujean; et al. “A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Psychosocial Outcomes.” Anthrozoös, 2015. Accessed September 22, 2019.

Contalbrigo, Laura; et al. “The efficacy of dog-assisted therapy in detained drug users: A pilot study in an Italian attenuated custody institute.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 2017. Accessed September 22, 2019.