Behavioral Health Brief: Animal-Assisted Therapy and ART — A Picture-Perfect Combo
My client walks gingerly into the stable. “Hi Daisy,” he calls softly to the dark brown mare standing by a fence post. He reaches his hands out tentatively. I study his body language as the large animal approaches.
Daisy carefully observes my client, a veteran haunted by memories of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then she softens her eyes and moves her nose into his hand. “That’s a good girl,” says my client, stroking Daisy’s glossy neck. I see his shoulders lower and his body relax, connecting his mind and body as he focuses on the horse.
Later, my client and I head into my office to begin a session of Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), which enables people to free themselves from the physical and emotional burdens of PTSD. As we began a series of mindfulness exercises to help my client become aware of the tension he carries in his body, it becomes clear that the time with the horse enables him to tap into a deeper awareness and, ultimately, will lead him to find relief from PTSD.
That I became a therapist who works with animals and with survivors of trauma—especially veterans and military spouses—is perhaps no surprise. I have been drawn to animals since early childhood and began riding horses when I was 3 years old. As my name suggests, I grew up on the prairies of Kansas on a cattle ranch. I took part in 4-H as a kid and went to college planning to major in preveterinary medicine. Since I was comfortable with horses, I took an internship at an equine therapy center. It wound up changing my life.
I will never forget one of our clients there, a boy with autism who was about 6. This little boy absolutely blossomed in the presence of a therapy horse. When it was time to go, he hugged the horse and said, “Love.” His parents started crying; it was the first word he had ever said.
After that, I was hooked. I continued to work at the equine center, helping veterans, trauma victims, and others. I switched my major to psychology and after graduation I started working with another equine therapy center near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I also married my husband, who was on active duty at the time, and developed a better understanding of the stressors faced by members of the military and their families.
After I completed my graduate work, I went into private practice. Due to my husband’s deployments, we moved frequently, which led me to become an early adopter of providing therapy through telemedicine. I also began providing equine therapy at several retreat programs for veterans dealing with PTSD and trauma, which is where I first encountered ART.
More than a dozen studies have shown ART to be a highly effective treatment for PTSD, trauma, anxiety, and phobias. ART has also shown very promising results for complicated grief; people who were nearly incapacitated with grief more than a year after losing a loved one found that, after a few sessions of ART, they could find joy in their daily lives again.
ART has been used extensively by the Department of Defense and veterans’ organizations. Unlike traditional talk therapy, clients do not divulge details of troubling memories. This makes it a good fit for people who struggle to open up or who find it hard to recount painful episodes.
Putting ART Into Practice
Since I already worked extensively with therapy animals in my own practice, I soon began scheduling animal therapy time for clients immediately before an ART session. Trauma is often encoded in our sensory memories. There are triggers—perhaps something as commonplace as the smell of coffee or the screech of tires—that bring to mind traumatic events and potentially lead to panic attacks. Spending time with animals helps people tap into that sensory memory. When you are with an animal, especially a large animal, it commands your attention. You become immersed in the softness of the animal’s fur. You peer into the animal’s big brown eyes, trying to determine how it is feeling and what it will do next.
After a client has spent time with animals, they are more aware of the sensations of their own bodies—an awareness that is key to a successful ART session. I often find clients are very guarded when they walk into my office. Some veterans, in particular, might perceive reaching out for mental health care as a sign of weakness. They might never have envisioned themselves seeing a counselor or are worried that they will divulge too much in a gush of emotion. When those clients arrive at my office, I often say, “Let’s go for a walk in the fields.” We spend time with my therapy dogs and visit our horse out in the pasture.
Following these walks, clients return to the office feeling centered and open. I can sense that something has shifted inside them during the time with the animals. They appear ready to trust me, to trust themselves. The process of forging a bond with the dogs and the horse has renewed them.
I believe that both animal-assisted therapy and ART can be hugely helpful in helping Americans heal. Spending time with animals has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, improve mood, and decrease stress. ART enables people to move on from traumatic events, to free themselves from panic attacks, pangs of fear, and troublesome triggers. Together, these therapies are especially effective. I hope more people are able to access the life-changing power of these treatments.
— Prairie Conlon is a licensed mental health professional and the founder of Emotional Support Animal Assisted Therapy. She employs both animal-assisted therapy and Accelerated Resolution Therapy in her practice.