Animal-Assisted Prolonged Exposure Therapy
Animal Assisted Therapy in Psychotherapy
For many survivors suffering with PTSD, reliving their trauma initially is terrifying. Often, even thinking about the trauma makes the survivor feel as if the experience is being repeated in the present. In addition, reliving the trauma in the presence of a therapist, a relative stranger to the survivor, is intimidating (Hensley, 2002; Weinstein & Rosen, 1988). Yet, this is exactly what PE requires of the survivor—reliving the trauma repeatedly, experiencing all the negative emotions associated with the trauma, and accomplishing all of this in the presence of a relative stranger.
Certainly, the therapist’s abilities to connect quickly with the survivor and to present himself or herself as trustworthy in the ﬁrst session affects the survivor’s willingness to continue with treatment.
Observations and theories set forth by animal-assisted therapists suggest that incorporating AAT components into the PE treatment (or any other psychotherapy) might help therapists to build positive therapeutic alliances quickly. Fine (2000, 2004) observed that nonhuman animals were instant icebreakers in therapy, with his dogs often meeting the clients at the door and his birds “speaking” to the clients. Almost all clients immediately began talking about the presence of the animals, helping to build rapport quickly between client and therapist.
Therapists using AAT also appear less threatening and more empathic to clients. Evolutionarily, humans have learned to judge the safety of an environment by the amount of anxiety exhibited by animals. The “calm” animal in the therapy session signals to the survivor that the ofﬁce is a safe place and that the therapist is a safe person (Kruger, Trachtenberg, & Serpell, 2004). This caveat illustrates the importance of using a therapy dog who has been assessed properly and trained for therapy work.
In addition to fostering a positive therapeutic relationship, the presence of the therapy dog also can assist with speciﬁc PE techniques. PE helps the individual process the traumatic event through imaginal reliving and in vivo expo-sure. Imaginal reliving involves the survivor’s reliving the traumatic event in her head. In vivo exposure involves the individual’s confronting situations that she avoids because they remind her of the assault. They are practiced both in session and at home. Both techniques promote habituation to fear and anxiety by having the survivor stay with the memory and the situation until anxiety begins to decrease naturally.
Read this entire 21 page report on how animal assisted therapy is making progress through research here.