Healing Hearts with Animal-Assisted Therapy

People who have experienced trauma can find it difficult to verbalize what happened, including how they are feeling about it. Trauma is defined as when someone has “encountered an out of control, frightening experience that has disconnected (them) from all sense of resourcefulness, or safety, or coping, or love” (Brach, 2011). Office-style, clinical therapy can be uncomfortable for those who have experienced trauma, as verbal communication is the main aspect of this approach. One very successful approach for treating this population is Animal-Assisted Therapy.

boy with horse

In Animal-Assisted Therapy programs, clients work alongside their animal partner toward completion of pre-determined personal goals. This may include completing caring chores for their animal partner (feeding, watering, brushing, cleaning up after them, etc.), in addition to ground interactions (walking, giving cues, establishing trusting bonds and relationships, etc.). There are three types of Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI). Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA’s) provide opportunities for motivation, education, and/or recreation to enhance quality of life. Animal-Assisted Education (AAE) is a planned and structured intervention directed and/or delivered by educational and related service professional with specific academic or educational goals. Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a goal directed intervention in which a trained animal is an integral part of the treatment process, and is delivered and/or directed by health or human service providers who document and evaluate interventions. The modalities may be combined to provide a more thorough experience (Choi, Dudzik, Fine, Jegatheesan, Johnson, Maria-Garcia, Omerad, Yamazaki, Winkle, 2014):

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) has also been defined as a “therapeutic modality with goals that are consistent with all of the basic counseling theoretical orientations. It is considered an adjunct to therapy in that it encourages and facilitates client motivation and participation, enhances the client–therapist relationship, stimulates client focus and attention to task, and reinforces positive client change” (Chandler, 2012). The therapist’s supportive, purposeful interactions between the client and the therapy animal, as well as between the client and the therapist, are an essential part of the success of therapy that incorporates the use of a therapy animal. AAT is not magic, but it can be an integral and complimentary contribution to the therapeutic process itself, sometimes appearing “magical.”

It is known through research that trauma affects a person by how he/she experienced the event, and not necessarily defined by the event itself (Soma, 2017). Therapeutic approaches for victims of trauma often include talk therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and/or possibly Art Therapy. Each of these can be beneficial in assisting a client to heal; however, as mentioned above, it has been determined that victims of trauma can find verbal communication difficult. Their sense of safety and trust has been challenged through their experience, overflowing into other areas of their lives. AAT has proven its effectiveness over the years for those who have experienced abuse, neglect, drug addiction, sexual assault victims, broken families, and anger management. Introducing animals during the therapeutic process provides a calm and comfort to clients that cannot be duplicated through the therapist. Animals have an ability to sense what someone needs at the exact moment they need it, a soft nuzzle on the arm, a lick on the hand, a cuddle on the lap, or just offering the sense of “being there.” There are also beneficial sensory experiences for participants of Animal-Assisted Therapy, which is an integral part to healing trauma. Animal partners encourage human senses to engage during the session, providing opportunities for touch, smell, sound, taste, and sight. For example, when the animal partner is a horse, there are coats to touch and brush, the velvety nuzzle of a soft nose, horse breath to feel and small, peppermint treats for both horse and human, soft eyes that share emotion, and the pure joy of seeing such a beautiful animal.

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, some positive outcomes of participating in an Animal-Assisted Therapy program are as follows: companionship, connections with animal(s) partner, ability to share without using verbal communication, rewards with affection, someone to talk to without fear of broken trust, a bond that will build trust, a stronger sense of self-regulation, and a decrease in symptoms of PTSD. Luckily, there are several program options to assist those who have experienced trauma during their healing process. The most important thing is that clients themselves choose the type of therapy they feel most comfortable participating in.

Healing is a journey, and each person’s journey should be his/her own.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Broch, T. (2011). Definition of Trauma. Retrieved from URL: http://trauma-recovery.ca/introduction/definition-of-trauma

Choi, G., Dudzik, C., Fine, A., Jegatheesan, Johnson, R.,B., Maria-Garcia, R., Omerad, E., , Yamazaki, K., Winkle, M. “The IAHAIO Definitions for Animal-Assisted Intervention and Guidelines for Wellness of Animals Involved”. (2014).

Soma, C, Allen, D. (2017). 10 Steps to Create a Trauma Informed School. Albion, MI: Starr Global Learning Network

By Anna Schankowski

Anna Schankowski, LMSW, is a licensed Clinical Social Worker, as well as a Licensed Trauma and Loss and Restorative Practices, trainer. She is also certified in Animal Assisted Therapy, and recently opened her own therapeutic farm in Carleton, MI, called Healing Hearts Therapeutic Farm. In addition to raising her family of two children, 17 and 20 years old, alongside her husband of 25 years, Anna has professionally worked with children, adolescents, and their families, for over twenty years. She has experience in foster care, juvenile delinquency programs, substance abuse and prevention programs, and private clinical therapy. Anna has worked the last thirteen years as a School Social Worker, with the last three years as a Behavior Specialist in Lincoln Park Public Schools, a downriver community of Michigan. A newer focus that Lincoln Park Public Schools has adopted is a Trauma Informed and Resiliency Focused approach with all students, district wide. This is an exciting time, as many professionals in the education field are realizing that there is a need to change our approach to today’s student.

About Starr Commonwealth

Starr Commonwealth is dedicated to the mission to lead with courage to create positive experiences so that all children, families, and communities flourish. We specialize in residential, community-based, educational, and professional training programs that build on the strengths of children, adults, and families in communities around the world. To schedule a training or consultation, please contact info@starr.org or call 800-837-5591.