Improving Communication: with Animal Assisted Therapy
Feb 01, 2012 01:47PM
● By Beth Davis
photo by Linda Colijn
At Fairbanks Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, the oldest nonprofit treatment center in America, counselors have taken a new approach to teaching adolescents about healthy communication. More than a year ago, they implemented Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in its HOWSE program, a transitional recovery program for adolescents, ages 15 to 19. HOWSE counselor, Erin Flick, says she’s seen a noticeable difference in the kids’ behavior thanks to Jack, a golden retriever, and Buckley, a Great Dane.
“The animals provide the kids with unconditional love and support, which allows them to begin moving toward emotional healing,” says Flick. But that’s certainly not all these dogs are providing.
Because most domestic animals shy away from aggressive behavior, AAT is helping the teens learn that quiet, gentle behavior will get better results. “It really teaches them how to communicate and handle potentially stressful situations,” explains Flick.
In fact, studies have shown that spending time with a friendly animal, even if only for a short time, increases the amount of endorphins that are released into the body and decreases the levels of cortisol—a hormone that controls stress. So, AAT can actually help the teens feel calmer and therefore able to manage conflict in a positive way.
“Instead of telling someone to ‘shut up’ or ‘move,’ they become more aware of one another’s feelings and more willing to express what they feel as well,” explains Flick. “Plus, it helps make them accountable for their own actions.” For teens who struggle with substance abuse or addiction, this can play a vital role in their recovery.
Flick says many of the teens in the program often come in with a lack of boundaries and a possible history of abuse or neglect. The dogs help teach the teenagers the concept of appropriate touch and gentle relations.
By introducing a trained therapy animal into the HOWSE program, Fairbanks has not only assisted these teens in learning how to better communicate, but has also helped in restoring a positive self-image and ability to trust others and themselves.