At Sanford Behavioral Health, we are doing a series of 12 articles on hope for the holidays and beyond. A series on hope would not be complete without talking about the benefits of a therapy dog in mental health treatment. We especially want to sing the praises of our therapy dog, Apollonia. Apol is an adorable Corgi who earns her keep doing the important job of comforting Sanford’s clients.
The Benefits of a Therapy Dog
Jacqueline Campbell (Jacq) is a licensed vet tech with a certification in animal-assisted therapy. She is also the daughter of Sanford Founders Rae and David Green and is familiar with the beneficial experience of communing with Apol. Jacque says, “There are many benefits to having a dog like Apollonia at Sanford for patients and employees alike. Dogs aren’t capable of judgment the way humans are; they don’t know anything about the person they are interacting with. However, they are masters of reading emotions and body language. For example, Apollonia can tell if someone is fidgeting or appears physically uncomfortable and responds by nudging them with her nose or offering up her belly submissively to encourage physical contact. ”
She says, “This is one of the most important benefits that therapy dogs offer- a calming physical connection and presence that humans can’t emulate. It’s not like you can sit and pet your therapist! But you can sit and pet a cute Corgi who wants love… queue the serotonin! This can add comfort to discussing and processing difficult emotions, including trauma.”
There are benefits to being with a therapy dog, including:
- A decrease in stress and anxiety
- A marked decrease in depression, loneliness, and feelings of isolation
- Therapy dogs make you feel happier
- With a therapy dog, clients can begin to realize an outward focus. It feels great to take care of someone/something and do it well!
- A therapy dog brings positive mental stimulation
- For the recovering person, there is an increase in self-esteem and the feeling of acceptance and social involvement
Being with a therapy dog makes you feel better – here’s why:
- Studies show that communing with an animal can decrease blood pressure and heart rate
- And like a walk on a beautiful day, being with a dog decreases the stress hormone cortisol
- It increases hormones associated with health and well-being, such as beta-endorphin, dopamine, and serotonin
- Taking care of a dog can stimulate a person to get some well-needed exercise
- There is an improvement in fine motor skills, balance, and other physical skills when handling an animal
- There is a sense of accomplishment when taking care of an animal
Jacq Campbell says, “The presence of animals has been shown to lower blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which also makes them everyone’s favorite coworker. Studies show that team morale is likely to increase in the presence of animals because it gives everyone neutral common ground and a shared distraction. This can also be beneficial in family therapy sessions where certain relationships may be strained. A therapy dog can add levity and innocence into tough situations.”
Animal-Assisted Therapy According to Jacq Campbell
Animal-assisted therapy must be used carefully and intentionally. Some individuals may have grown up in a culture where dogs are not acceptable or suffered a dog bite earlier in life that caused them to be fearful. They may not like animals. Or perhaps while in treatment, a patient has been separated from their beloved pet, and seeing a different one triggers a negative emotional response (the opposite of what we’re trying to do)! For individuals who enjoy animals, the benefits of having a therapy dog far outweigh any downsides—especially a dog like Apollonia.
Jacq (who is clearly smitten) says, “Our brains are naturally wired to be more attracted to things that appear young, like babies and puppies. This makes Apollonia and her eternal “puppy-ness” especially irresistible, with her giant ears, tiny stature, and big brown eyes. In addition, Corgis are in tune with their surroundings. After all, they are working dogs bred to herd cattle. It’s their job to pay attention! This characteristic, along with her caring demeanor and tendency to seek out physical affection, lends itself to making her the perfect dog to assist in the important work being done at Sanford Behavioral Health.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, eating disorders, or co-occurring mental health conditions, don’t wait to change your life – click the link below to speak with an admissions specialist.