Animals Can Assist in Psychotherapy
January 18, 2011
DENVER (USA TODAY) -- No matter what problem has compelled a person to visit this homey psychotherapy practice just steps from a busy urban avenue here -- post-traumatic stress, anxiety, family problems, abuse -- an animal will participate in the session.
It could be Sasha the mutt; semi-retired tiger-striped Norman the cat; Conner, Charm and Summer the Belgian Tervurens; or Harmony the bay Thoroughbred (granddaughter of Secretariat). All are part of the treatment protocols developed by the four therapists at Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado.
"We have found we can reach therapeutic goals much faster" by incorporating the animals into the sessions, says Linda Chassman, a therapist for more than two decades who first began using kitty kindness with clients 10 years ago and went on to seek certification in a specialty known as animals and human health.
Unlike at most practices, where a counselor may occasionally have a pet sit in on a session, at AATPC the therapy animals -- many of which have endured difficult histories before finding homes with these therapists and, ultimately, their calling -- are at the core of helping patients sort through their problems. And AATPC is one of a handful in the nation where animals play such a fundamental role.
"Rapport-building is much faster" when animals are part of the process, Chassman says. Not only is their presence soothing, but when they're around, "people are much more willing to get to the issues, especially kids, who, rather than directly confronting something, can speak to or about the animal."
Says therapist Ellen Kinney, "Incorporating the animals into our work here makes this a fun, welcoming place ... and helps make therapy feel much less threatening."
This isn't just another way of capitalizing on the nation's obsession with animals, Chassman says.
"When I see a client, I use all of the skills I've developed in 25 years of being a therapist. We simply add the benefit -- confirmed as a benefit by research -- of an animal."
Moreover, it's impossible to go on professional cruise control. Employing the animals "forces us to be inventive in therapies, allows us to be creative," Kinney says.
So convinced are they of animals' helpfulness in working through human trauma, they've launched their "filial pet therapy program" where, after some in-office sessions, they'll teach parents to use therapeutic play with the family pet to help kids with behavioral issues. (Sometimes the pet requires outside training first.)
And this month they've begun conducting workshops for human services professionals to help them with the specifics of what's needed to incorporate animals into their work.
The animals-and-shrinks combo isn't for everyone, they acknowledge. But, Chassman says, "a specific group of clients benefit," and the program "shortens the length of therapy for a lot of people."
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