Embrace U is embracing the benefits of pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy. These benefits can be both emotional and psychological, providing adolescents who are experiencing mental health challenges with another way to find comfort, joy, and connection.
How Pet Therapy Works at Embrace U
Participants in Embrace U’s outpatient programs have opportunities to interact with a large English Mastiff named Samson. The dog’s owner, Jill Rainford, says there’s really no script when it comes to pet therapy. She lets the children take the lead.
“I just walk Samson into the room and then the kids do what they need to do with him,” Rainford said. “Every kid interacts with him in a different way. Some just want to look. Others ask questions about him. Some want to pat him or give him a hug. You’ll see the children get what they need from him and it’s really kind of beautiful.”
During a recent visit to Embrace U’s adolescent mental health clinic in Brentwood, Tenn., Samson was immediately greeted by a boy who asked if the dog did any tricks. The boy then spent the next 15 minutes awarding Samson with pieces of string cheese for sitting down, shaking, staying in place, and waiting to eat thin pulls of cheese that had been placed on his paw until he was given the command to eat. The boy asked if he could cuddle with Samson and the two got cozy in the corner of a group meeting room.
“There’s some sort of magic there,” Rainford said. “This world is full of so much stimulus with social media and TV and screens. I think with a lot of those stimuli come an expectation of interaction and response. With an animal they require nothing. They just want to be there and love on you. Dogs are a source of unconditional love and I don’t know that humans, in general, experience a lot of sources of unconditional love.”
The Power of Pet Therapy
Rainford caught a glimpse of how Samson could help people when she brought him to visit her grandfather who was recovering from a stroke at a senior living center. Her grandfather hadn’t spoken since the stroke.
“They wheeled him out to the courtyard,” Rainford recounted. “Grandpa was petting Samson and said, ‘Good boy.’ Those were the first words he’d said in a long time. It was very sweet.”
Rainford noticed other residents at the senior center watching her and Samson from their windows. One resident came out to get a closer look at Samson. Soon there was a line of people asking if they could pet him.
“What was supposed to be a 30-minute visit ended up being three hours,” Rainford said. “Samson loved on a lot of people. That’s when I said, ‘Samson, I think it’s time for you to go to work.’”
Rainford went through a rigorous training process with Samson, which included handling tests, stimulus tests and observations in various settings, including hospitals. He eventually passed all the tests to become a certified therapy pet. Samson has comforted patients in a dementia unit, children at homeless shelters, and countless people recovering from various ailments.
One of the most touching moments Rainford witnessed was when a girl started whispering to Samson.
“She would not engage with me,” Rainford said. “She followed us around everywhere Samson went, and kept one hand on his back. I gave up trying to talk to her and just let her be. Then one day, I saw that she’d taken his big ear between her index finger and her thumb and was whispering to him. That became a regular thing. She would tell Samson all her secrets. And guess what? Samson is a great secret keeper.”
Benefits of Pet Therapy
Researchers believe pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy can create positive health benefits, which can improve a person’s mental and physical health. Children experiencing a mental health challenge often face significant stress, which can hinder their healing. Animals may be a source of comfort, joy and sense of calm. Spending about 15 minutes with an animal can reduce stress. Studies show animal interactions may even speed up healing.
The presence of an animal prompts the boy to release serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, according to Husson University. These hormones can help a person relax, and lower symptoms of depression, anxiety and sadness.
Benefits of pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy include:
Reduced Anxiety: Interacting with animals, especially gentle and trained ones, can help reduce anxiety and stress in children.
Comfort and Companionship: Pets provide a source of unconditional love and companionship, which can be particularly comforting for children who may feel isolated or lonely due to their mental illness.
Increased Happiness: The act of petting or playing with animals can trigger the release of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.
Distraction from Negative Thoughts: Spending time with animals can distract children from negative or distressing thoughts, allowing them to focus on the present moment.
Enhanced Social Skills: Interacting with therapy animals can improve a child’s social skills, as they may need to communicate with handlers or other individuals also engaging with the animals.
Reduced Social Isolation: For children who struggle with social interactions, pets can serve as a bridge to connect with others.
Lowered Stress Levels: Spending time with animals has been shown to reduce heart rate and lower stress levels, which can be especially beneficial for children with anxiety disorders.
Decreased Tension: Petting or cuddling animals can lead to muscle relaxation and decreased tension in the body.
Sense of Responsibility
Increased Self-Esteem: Caring for a pet can boost a child’s self-esteem and sense of accomplishment, as they take on the responsibility of feeding, grooming, and providing care for the animal.
Routine and Structure: Pet care can help establish a daily routine and structure in a child’s life, which can be particularly important for those with mood disorders or conditions like autism.
A Sense of Fun: Interacting with animals can be fun and enjoyable, serving as a positive distraction from symptoms associated with mental illness.
Improved Coping: Children may develop healthier coping mechanisms by engaging in activities with therapy animals.
Non-Judgmental Environment: Children may find it easier to express their emotions and talk about their feelings in the presence of animals, who are non-judgmental listeners.
Therapeutic Conversations: Therapists often use animal interactions as a way to initiate conversations and help children express themselves.
It’s important to note that while pet therapy can provide numerous benefits, it is not a replacement for professional mental health treatment. It should be considered as a complementary therapy, and its effectiveness may vary from one individual to another. Always consult with a mental health professional to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for a child dealing with mental illness.