Animal Assisted Therapy

Today’s blog comes to us from Angela Schmitt, an Animal Assisted Therapist at Aurora Behavioral Health in Glendale and Tempe. Angela does some amazing work through her horse therapy program which provides clients with a different approach to mental health treatment. We also put together a short video on Angela’s work… can watch it by clicking here or on the picture below.

horse_therapyAnimal-assisted therapy is a practice of utilizing the animals as the “co-therapist” in the therapeutic setting. Animal-assisted therapy has several applications, depending on the setting and the animal (dog, cat, horse, dolphin, turtle, bunny, rat, etc) which, can be utilized in a the interaction with the client(s) or patient(s). This includes and not limited to petting, playing, grooming, feeding, training a new behavior, receiving and giving hugs and kisses and/or hanging out with the animal. Through this somatic and emotional interaction with the animals, the clients/patients can learn how to set boundaries, communicate better with others and build connection through contact and touch, to name a few, that so many patients/clients starved for. The animal can provide a safe space for the client or patient where they can project their feelings, beliefs or thoughts onto the horse or dog, they may talk to the animal about something they can’t say to someone else or talking through the animal, in that the animal can be the “voice”  for the human client. Animal-assisted therapy provides multitudes of therapeutic benefits such as, reduces stress and anxiety, supports self-esteem and confidence, awareness of self and other, while providing a calming affect, comfort, unconditional love, contact and connection. The research suggests that being around animals can lower blood pressure, relax the breathing, reduce or relieve pain, provide moments of happiness and give the patient/client a sense of hope. 

The way that it differs from traditional therapy is first, that the therapist’s is bringing in a four-pawed, 2 or 4 flipper and/or 4 hoofed in the setting as a “co-therapist” to support the therapeutic session. The therapist can operate from their own therapeutic modality, while adding the animal in as part of their practice. The therapist, can just allow animal to be there in a supportive “co-therapist” role, with its presence. Yet, in the different settings, the animal can provide assistance in numerous arenas and the therapist gets to be very creative, which can create more opportunities to meet the client’s/patient’s needs. Animal-assisted therapy can be utilized in numerous practices and with countless client/patient applications. It is up to the therapist how they want to bring their work into the world. 

At Aurora Behavioral Health Systems, in collaboration with, Animals with Heart, we utilize the dogs in one manner and the horses in another. The equine assisted-therapy program is based in Gestalt psychology perspective, which provides experiential’s that assist the client(s) to feel and see, while forming meanings and values of self, life and being able to recognize patterns that keep them stuck. While having the horse(s) in their environment creates countless ways to work with patients. Seeing and feeling a horse (s), being part of the heard, allows them to be in the present moment. In those moments  that bubble up, it will thread back to moment in time that created the “wound” or the source of sadness. The ability of opening one’s self is healing. The horses in this therapeutic circle they teach us self-awareness, relationship, contact, while helping us to feel our hearts again.  We are able to be very creative with the client and horse to create and experiments to open-up the patients/clients and then to integrate the new experience that has healing in it for the client/patient.  


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