You know the impact your pet has on your life. But can the same sense of healing, security and unconditional love that your furry friend gives you be transferred in therapy? This is a question people like Amy McCullough, M.A., and Cynthia Chandler, Ed.D., are answering with a definitive “Yes.”

The American Humane Association defines animal-assisted therapy (AAT) on their website as:

“a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical health-care treatment process. AAT is delivered or directed by a professional health or human service provider who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions.”

Here are four more facts you might not know about animal-assisted therapy:

1. They are not dependent on a specific theory. Animal-assisted therapy encompasses all types of psychology theories from psychoanalytic to behavioral. Amy McCullough, who is the American Humane Association’s National Animal-Assisted Therapy Director, explains that animal-assisted therapy is “utilizing an animal as an adjunct to a therapeutic process” regardless of theory. In general, AAT “becomes another tool in their tool kit for the type of therapy they practice.”

2. They are not service animals. Although often confused with service animals, there are significant differences between them. Service animals, for example, are protected by the American Disabilities Act, live with owners who have physical and emotional disabilities and assist them solely with daily living. In contrast, therapy animals work with professionals and clients.

3. They don’t just include dogs and horses. While you will most likely hear about dogs and horses, therapy animals run the gamut from llamas to dolphins.

4. They help individuals with a wide variety of causes and settings. Therapy animals assist therapists in helping clients with a multitude of goals such as improving self-esteem and developing social skills, as well as providing help for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They also work in a wide variety of clinical settings from psychiatric hospitals to nursing homes.

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Cynthia Chandler, Ed.D is a counseling professor at the University of North Texas, the Center for Animal-Assisted Therapy’s founder and director and the author of Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling. She brought up a common question skeptics have when considering the benefits of animal-assisted therapy: “Well that sounds cute, but why I would really want to bring my dog to work?” Pet lovers will happily vouch for the positive impact their pets have on their lives. But is there anything significantly beneficial about involving animals in therapy?

McCullough seems to think so. In her nine years as a volunteer, she’s worked with her dog Bailey and a recreational therapist at an inpatient psychiatric hospital. While there, she’s witnessed an increase in patient participation in group therapy and changes in patient behavior. She also found that practical skills such as hygiene and self-care, specifically for patients with severe mental health issues, could be addressed more easily and with less discomfort in Bailey’s presence. “He (the therapist) would ask me sort of what did Bailey have to do to be able to come in here today and so I would talk about [grooming, nutrition and exercise] and he would use that as a jumping-off point to talk about how that’s important for all of the people in the room to think about.”

Animal-assisted therapy can also help individuals develop social skills. AAT helps clients realize behavioral cues practiced with a therapy animal can be “use(d) beyond the 45 minutes that they are with the animal and apply this skill to other settings whether it’s getting along with their peers or talking to their counselor.”

The relationship between therapy animals and the therapist can also be a model for a healthy relationship. For example, Chandler says that clients gain information about how to form and maintain relationships and trust by watching how a therapist responds to the animal and the animal responds to the therapist. “The therapist and the therapy animal, their interactions, their relationships serves as a good model for client that helps the client feel safer in a session.”

The presence of animals themselves is soothing and can more quickly build rapport between therapist and client. In addition, therapy animals, especially horses and dogs, have built-in survival skills. That makes them able to pick up social cues imperative to human relationships. Therapists then can process that information and use it to help clients see how their behavior affects others. And they can do this in an immediate way.

Chandler says, “If they say or do something the animal doesn’t like, the animal will just go and react negatively immediately and if they do something the animal likes, the animals going to react positively immediately. It gives them a chance to practice caring skills and social skills with a being which is simpler to do that with than a human.”

Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Really Work?

AAT began in the early 1990s and thus is a relatively new field. Since then, it has grown in popularity, has gained wide acceptance and is evolving into mainstream psychology. This is evident in the increasing number of universities such as the University of North Texas that offer a graduate course in animal-assisted therapy.

Therapists and potential clients may wonder, however, what makes AAT more beneficial than traditional talk therapy. Skeptics may question the lack of research to back up the benefits of AAT. McCullough says, “There’s a lot of anecdotal information and case studies, but there’s really a need in this field for a broader long-term study.” Her organization is currently working on a multi-site study with AAT and pediatric oncology patients and their families.

But though the research may be sparse, Chandler says the research is out there and has been increasing since 2002. She cites one study, for example, that showed a significant drop in stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and aldosterone and an increase in “health inducing and social inducing” hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins after 20 minutes with a therapy dog. Working with a therapy animal has also resulted in behavioral improvement in children and a reduction in depression for elderly with dementia. To her, the research speaks for itself. “There is actually a psycho-physiological, emotional and physical (component) to interacting with a therapy animal.” And the key that links all of these positive benefits comes down to oxytocin. In addition to lowering blood pressure and heart rate, it is a powerful healing mechanism. “Oxytocin is one of the best, most powerful, wonderful, healthy social hormones we have and it’s the one that’s the most grossly affected in a positive way through human-animal interaction.” She says animal-assisted therapy is here to stay simply because the oxytocin effect is undeniable.

Therapy animals have also returned the positive benefits of touch to counseling. Touch has been understandably removed from therapy, especially with counseling youth, but at a cost. Therapy animals also provide a purely nonjudgmental space for individuals to work out their problems. Chandler says, “Animals do not prejudge you. They don’t know that you’ve had a divorce. They don’t know that you’re dealing with sexual abuse.” Sometimes it’s petting an animal itself or their ability to teach us in the present moment what we find too difficult to learn on our own. But it’s also the sheer presence of an animal, their acceptance and admirable ability to express themselves without holding anything back that makes animal-assisted therapy so powerful. McCullough says it best. “They accept you for the way you are flaws and all. They are so forgiving and they are always happy to see you. Their behavior is just so consistent and so consistently happy that I think it’s just comforting to people knowing that there is a being there that you can always count to be happy to see you and not judge you for anything you’ve done.”

If you are interested in seeking animal-assisted therapy, you can contact the American Humane Association, the American Counseling Association or ask your veterinarian to refer you to an animal-assisted therapist in your neighborhood.