Oceanside Family Therapy & Assessments -
Animal-Assisted Therapy & Play Therapy with Kids and Canines

Young children often don't use the self-disclosure skills of an adult in talk therapy. Therefore, when working with children in counseling it is important to utilize proven interaction methods that children relate to and benefit from.  In addition to our specialized play therapy room that is equipped with therapeutic board games, art therapy supplies and appropriate toys for play therapy we also offer animal-assisted therapy (AAT) for some of our specialized cases.
For example: children with ASD (autism spectrum disorders); ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder); children with trauma/abuse history; attachment issues; foster/adopted children and certain behavioral disorders can all benefit from pet involved therapy.
Petting a therapy pet can increase levels of oxytocin, an anti-anxiety hormone that naturally makes us feel calm and more trusting.  This can be very useful in working with anxious, depressed, withdrawn, traumatized, autistic, socially awkward, and reactive attachment children.  It can also be a useful component in treating borderline personality disorder, PTSD and with grieving clients.
A well-trained, even temperament therapy dog can also increase levels of serotonin and dopamine - nerve transmitters that are known to have calming and feel good properties and have even been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure as well as lessening anxiety.
Working with a pet therapy dog as part of a structured psychotherapy session is also associated with: improved levels of trust and rapport; self-esteem; positive self-image; boundary setting; feelings of security; empathy; communication skills; and decreased aggression, emotional reactivity and resistance in treatment.
Pet assisted therapy is conducive to a variety of therapeutic approaches including cognitive/behavioral, coping/social skill building, play therapy and emotionally focused treatment.

Not Just for Children:

Adults can also benefit from therapy dogs in session.  As clients delve into painful past experiences in session, having a therapy dog in session to hug, pet and hold can provide additional comfort, safety and support.  The neuroscience behind pet assisted therapy also shows us that clients of all ages can experience positive brain chemistry in the presence of a trained therapy dog.  Specifically, a trained dog can help decrease blood pressure, anxiety and feelings of depression.

The University of Missouri-Columbia, currently conducting research in this arena, suggests that hormonal changes that naturally occur when humans and dogs interact could help people cope with depression and certain stress-related disorders. 

Preliminary results show that a just few minutes of stroking a pet dog prompts a release of a number of these "feel good" hormones in humans, including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin; and decreases levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol. Therefore, the client can explore more deeply into stressful issues in session while experiencing less overall distress.
Meet Our Therapy Dogs:  

Pet therapy was first used by psychiatrist Boris Levison in 1953 – who used a dog to work with autistic children. Dr. Levinson found the dog provided the child the opportunity to experience internal and external sensations – something the child could not do with people.
A good therapy dog needs to be calm, gentle and friendly. These and other important traits come naturally to the Havanese.  Such friendly, cheerful interactions with a therapy dog can help lessen feelings of depression, loneliness and isolation. Dogs don't care about things like age, appearance or infirmity, but accept people as they are. 
This Havanese therapy dog is a 12 inch tall, sweet, loving, playful, green eyed female who makes children feel trusted and heard.  She is also hypoallergenic and non-shedding. She has been socialized, trained and worked extensively around young children with various dispositions for over 4 years.  Her sturdy build and woolly hair make her huggable and teddy bear like in comforting children of trauma, anxiety, adjustment, hyperactivity, ASD and attachment issues.

The Papillon, named for its butterfly (French) shaped ears, is one of the most obedient and responsive of the toy breeds and is also gentle, amiable, and playful, making them a great choice for therapy dogs.  Weighing around 8 lbs and around 8" tall, this therapy dog is a favorite with nervous and shy children and has also been very successful in treating dog fears and building self-confidence, sense of control, attentive and caring behaviors in children of various ages.  This Papillon has gained over 2 years of training and socializing with adults and children as young as 2 years old.

This therapy dog is a pedigree standard poodle. Bred for intelligence, train-ability and sweet disposition, standard poodles are known to be sensitive and empathetic to the needs of humans and are regularly used as therapy and service dogs.  This standard poodle is 36 lbs of non-shedding, hypoallergenic love and play. "Teddy" loves kids and likes to give hugs and high fives with his front paws.  As he is a larger breed, he does well with children who are comfortable with dogs. He has 1 1/2 years of training and is also a sleep anxiety service dog to an 8 year old boy.  Therefore, he is great for play therapy sessions with active children and also for more relaxed, supportive sessions with children who may have experienced trauma, anxiety or poor attachment bonds with the primary caregivers in their lives.

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Anger Management, Attachment Disorders and Emotional Regulation:

Caring for a rescued orphan such as Rosa, a calico kitten, under the guidance of a trained therapist can provide a safe environment for a child to learn nurturing skills and a healthy attachment bond.  During this process of caring and comfort the child can learn to let go of emotional walls that have been used to protect him/her from previous pain.  The child can experimentally experience the role of protector, caregiver, nurturer and healer; when perhaps he/she has never really been able to experience these roles before.  Therefore, the child can begin to abandon, anger, aggression, avoidance and discomfort while experiencing healthy emotional regulation. 

In adoption cases and attachment disorders, the child can project his/her sense of isolation and abandonment onto the orphaned pet and then nurture the pet in a simultaneous healing of the self in resolving old, deep seated (even subconscious) emotional and psychological wounds.  As these wounds heal, the child can learn new coping strategies and let go of mal-adaptive coping mechanisms and reduce symptoms.
Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Anxiety, Depression and Adjustment Disorders:

With a carefully selected animal and a trained therapist, the child can learn a sense of control, a predictable response and a sense of being needed and being important.  During the chaos of a divorce, move, trauma or life transition, the child can create a healthy bond while simultaneously undergoing cognitive behavioral, dialectical or play therapy.

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders:

"People have long turned to animals as a way to help with health conditions or disabilities -- either as part of formal therapy or to offer everyday assistance (such as guide dogs for the blind). In some cases, therapy dogs are called into action to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) -- a group of developmental brain disorders that hinder a child's ability to communicate and interact socially. ASDs range from the severe cases of "classic" autism to the relatively mild form called Asperger's syndrome.  In the United States, it's estimated that about one in 88 children has some form of autism.

As published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Cirulli's team found six published studies of dogs' effects on children with an autism spectrum disorder. Four of them looked at therapy dogs -- dogs that therapists use during formal sessions to help children settle in, get engaged and be more open to communicating.
Overall, the studies were positive, Cirulli and her colleagues found in one study of 22 children, for example, kids were more talkative and socially engaged during therapy sessions where a dog was present. In another study, of 12 boys, the children were less aggressive and smiled more when their therapy session included a canine companion." - Web MD

Animal-assisted therapy sessions at Oceanside Family Therapy & Assessments are supplemental to regularly planned sessions.  There is no additional fee for this service. 
Ask us about pet therapy options for your child if you think it might be a good fit. 
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