Animal Assisted Therapy for Couples

lucy pet therapy

Lately I’ve become super interested in the use of animals, especially dogs, in counseling settings. It’s something that I’ve been developing as an interest for awhile and of course it’s been enhanced since I started doing pet therapy volunteering with Lucy through SPCA. I wrote a few papers on the topic for grad school this semester and thought I’d share one of them here today.

Animal Assisted Therapy in Couples Counseling

Animal assisted therapy utilizes pets in the therapy room to enhance the power of the counseling relationship and the work done with clients. This has primarily been studied in counseling working with individuals, especially children, people on the autism spectrum and individuals working through trauma. However, there are a handful of therapists out there who are actively using pet therapy in couples counseling. Animal-assisted couples therapy is typically used in conjunction with other approaches to working with couples, rather than as a stand-alone type of therapy. It complements several of the major approaches used in couples counseling and works well for therapists using an eclectic approach.

Approaches to Animal Assisted Therapy

There are three ways that pets typically assist in couples counseling. The most common is for the therapist to bring his/her own pet to the sessions; this is usually (but not always) a dog. The pet is often specially-trained to work as an emotional support animal. In some cases, the pet may belong to someone other than the therapist but be assigned specifically to work in that therapy office. Although this area of research has only been studied in recent years, it is not a new approach to therapy. In fact, Freud himself was known to bring his dog Jofi to sessions and even to make interpretations through Jofi based on the behavior the dog displayed towards the clients! (Walsh, 2009)

The second approach to animal assisted therapy is for the clients to bring their own family pet into the couples counseling session. This is less common but can be greatly beneficial for some clients. Clients who share a love for their pet may be able to use this as a bonding tool to motivate their work in sessions. Other times, the favoring of the pet by one over the other can quickly reveal insights into the relationship.

Finally, couples therapy may incorporate family pets without actually bringing them into the room. This is done by asking clients questions about the pets at home with the specific intention of gaining more information about family dynamics, the ways in which the couples interacts with one another and even potential domestic violence in the home. A Utah State University study by Ascione, Weber and Wood called The Abuse of Animals and Domestic Violence revealed that in one domestic violence shelter more than 85% of women and 63% of children reported pet abuse in the home. This is one of several studies that suggest a strong correlation between the way a person treats the animals in the home and the way that (s)he treats the other humans in the home.

Pets Reflect Couples’ Behavior Back to Them

One of the core tools that the therapist uses with couples is to provide them with insight into the impact of their actions on each other, the relationship, and the family system. Sometimes a dog can demonstrate this information to a couple better than even the most qualified therapist. In her TIME Health article The Dog Will See You Now, Alexandra Sifferlin provides one example from the therapy room of Colorado-based LPC Ellen Winston who used pet therapy with a couple that was divorcing but wanted to communicate better in order to co-parent. Sifferlin writes, “During the sessions, the couple would sit on complete opposite sides of the couch. Sasha (the dog) would hop in the middle, curl up and fall asleep. Both partners would stroke Sasha at particularly emotional moments, and it helped them calm down. Still, they continued to get agitated, often letting therapy sessions intensify into screaming matches. When that happened, Sasha would quickly get up and walk to the door. Winston used those moments as teaching points.” The couple quickly began to see how damaging their conversational style and saw, through the dog, the impact it was likely having on their children. This motivated the couple towards change.

Pets are Part of the Family

MFT research from the 1970s reveals that many therapists noticed the important role that pets play in families, which is why it can be powerful to have couples bring their family dog into a session or to devote a session to talking about the animal. Froma Walsh, PhD writes in Human-Animal Bonds II: The Role of Pets in Family Systems and Family Therapy:

“Murray Bowen (1978) noted that the family emotional system, which reverberates like shockwaves through the network of relationships, may include even nonrelatives and pets. Network therapists Speck and Attneave (1973) noticed that pets often seemed to reflect the feelings of family members and their behavior seemed directly related to the behavioral trends in the family.”

Pets can become part of the triangle in family relationships. Walsh gives an example:

“In some cases, pets became the subject of observation and conversation between spouses, with warmth, concern, and affection expressed for the pet rather than for each other. In a pursuer-distancer relationship, this could provide affection for a partner wanting more intimacy than the other. However, in some cases, this could evoke jealousy and hurt. One couple came to me for therapy because the wife felt starved of affection by her husband, who sat petting his purring cat on his lap every evening but could not express affection toward her. Exploration of family-of-origin issues revealed that, having felt threatened by his mother’s intrusiveness, he was more comfortable being affectionate with his cat than with women.”

If a pet can become part of triangulation in families, it can also be used therapeutically as the third leg of the triangle in the counseling room.

Pet Ownership Lowers Stress in Marriages

Pet ownership has been known to lower stress . Jill A. Kraus reported in her study Stress in Pet Owners and Non-Pet Owners that married couples with supportive social relationships were less likely to experience the negative impact of stress and that pets in the home could serve as just such a supportive social relationship to the benefit of both partners. The therapist can help the couple relive positive experiences that they have had with their pets to strengthen bonding and positive emotions between one another.

Furthermore, Walsh, PhD, writes, “In a study of social interaction patterns in the everyday life of couples, Allen (1995) found that couples with dogs had greater well-being, and those with the highest attachment to their dogs – and who confide in them – fared the best.Interestingly, talking to dogs – in addition to one’s spouse – was related to greater life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and physical and emotional health. Confiding in pets to ‘‘discuss’’ difficult life situations greatly relieved stress.” Therapists have been known to ask couples to direct their conversations through the dog in the room in order to reveal sensitive information that they may not yet be able to speak directly to their partner.

Other Benefits of Pets in Couples Therapy

  • Pets improve people’s moods. A more positive attitude may help improve therapy outcomes. It reduces client anxiety and helps build therapeutic rapport in the early stages of the relationship.
  • Dogs can encourage couples to interact with one another. Therapy dogs can be used to play interactive games with clients to get them working together. This shows the couple that they can indeed work together after all.
  • Animal misbehavior can be a teaching tool, especially for couples who disagree over how to to discipline children and other parenting issues. It can also help a couple practice problem solving.
  • The pet may be considered part of the healing team. Therapists who work with couples to identify their individual and shared support systems may add the pet to that list.

Additional Considerations

Although the health benefits of having pets and even the use of pets in the therapy room are not new things, they are understudied, especially as they apply to couples’ counseling. Therapists interested in working with pets in this way should gain as much training as possible. Additionally, the therapist must consider the legal and ethical issues involved with bringing pets into the therapy room.

Sifferline, quoting Canisius College adjunct professor of anthrozoology Sherly Pipe, says, “a therapy animal should be considered a partner rather than a tool. “We tend to have a greater willingness to consider the impact on our partner than our tools. We have to make sure an animal is happy participating and still has adequate time to behave like the animal that they are.”

Walsh’s report adds, “The therapist’s careful selection and certification of a therapy animal, rigorous healthcare and monitoring, and informed consent by clients are all essential (Fine, 2006b; see Delta Society, Standards of Practice,; Therapy Dogs International,” If animal abuse is revealed during the course of therapy with animals, the therapist must adhere to the appropriate mandated reporting requirements.

Finally it is important to remember that people form strong bonds with pets. If a therapist’s pet is used regularly in couples counseling, it will be important to include the pet in the termination process when couples’ therapy comes to an end.




Lucy, Pet Therapy Perfection

lucy muni

Golden Retriever Lucy and I have recently received our certification to work together as an animal assisted therapy team through the SPCA. We did three weeks of classes/ evaluation. I did 3 shadow visits of other teams. We did two visits with a mentor shadowing us. And now we are on our own. It’s so inspiring for me to see and Lucy loves the work.

pet therapy dog

I got the idea to do this because every time I walk Lucy there are people on the street who just light up when they see her. So many people have randomly told me that seeing her made their day. She loves people so I figured it would be a win-win situation and it is. She is certified to visit schools, hospitals, transitional living centers, psychiatric units, etc. Sometimes they take her to the park to play, sometimes she’s in a community room and sometimes she goes room to room. She snuggles up with people and they make each other feel loved. It’s so warm and wonderful. I feel lucky to get to witness these exchanges.

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It’s World Mental Health Day


“World Mental Health Day is promoted by the World Health Organization to help raise awareness about mental health issues. The day promotes open discussion of mental disorders, and what the world’s governments and health organizations are doing in prevention, promotion and treatment services. This year’s theme is living with schizophrenia.” – PsychCentral

Crochet for Schizophrenia

I’ll have a post up today on Crochet Concupiscence about the ways in which one woman has used crochet as part of her total wellness plan in living with schizophrenia.

A Recent Setback

For my post here, I wanted to talk about depression instead, because that’s what I personally deal with. And I wanted to be open about a setback I had recently that was hugely frustrating and reminded me how difficult it can be to get adequate mental health care when you need it.

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The Single Story

I’m still kind of recovering from my long weekend back to school. Those weekends are intense and they just wipe me out. I’m in class from 9-8 on Friday and Saturday and then 9-4 on Sunday. The classes this semester are family dynamics, psychopathology and trauma – not light material. So when I woke up on Monday I just felt completely beat up from the inside out and I’ve been mostly recuperating since.

That said, the weekend was truly inspiring. We pack a lot of amazing information into these weekends and I always leave with so, so much to think about. The favorite thing that stands out from this past weekend is a short TED talk that we watched in family dynamics about “the single story”. I have lots of thoughts but for now I’ll let the video speak for itself:


Top 10 Things I Learned from Gestalt Class

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Yesterday I wrote about my graduate school intensive retreat week in which I took a Gestalt course. I’ve written a full paper about what I really learned in the class but I’ve also written this top ten list of things I learned, which I thought I’d share here on the blog today:
  1. Oh, wow, I live inside a body, not just a head.
  2. Beware of the word “should”; it signifies an introject that might be worth giving back to its owner.
  3. If you want to still look youthful after years of being a therapist then you should probably consider being a Gestalt therapist.
  4. Confluence isn’t always bad. There are orgasms, after all.
  5. All of those times that I’ve tuned out the world around me in order to rejuvenate were actually excellent self-care practices using the technique of shuttling.
  6. My ears still glaze over when someone starts talking about their dreams.
  7. How I eat may reflect the way that I take in information.
  8. The only dogma of Gestalt is that we work in the here-and-now.
  9. I am in a constant process of imploding and exploding in order to become self-actualized.
  10. I am not the same me that I was a moment ago.



Applied Spirituality Final Post

I recently shared that I’d done a creativity/spirituality process for a grad school class. I shared my original proposal. Throughout the semester we did forum posts with updates about our process and progress. I thought today I’d share the final post that I did at the end of the course, which I titled Looking Forward.


A lot seems to be happening for me, in me, around me lately … because of the work for this course, because of the work in this school. And while I thought about sharing some of that here, particularly in regards to what I’ve been continuing to do for Applied Spirituality, I’ve decided that what’s more important for me at this stage is to look at what it all might look like moving forward. What did I get out of this? What will I take with me? What will it mean for the people I encounter personally and professionally in the future?

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What a Life Perspectives Study Says About Me

I recently participated in an online Life Perspectives Study run by a graduate student in psychology named Ivan Nasilev.

The Request for Help

Here’s what prompted me to participate:

Interested in contributing to psychology research and learning more about yourself? This study being conducted by the Institute of Psychology at the University of Heidelberg focuses on how different life perspectives and well-being measures relate to each other. More specifically, it aims at investigating how many empirically distinct kinds of optimism there are, and what positive and negative effects they have on psychological well-being and human health.”

Research background

“Even though “optimistic” and “pessimistic” are terms regularly used for the description of people in everyday life, in psychology research there is still no agreement of what “optimism” exactly is. Some research groups see it as a general positive expectancy of the future, others as a specific way people explain the causes of things that happen to them. A third viewpoint focuses more on whether individuals tend to focus on positive or negative aspects of situation when both are given. Finally, another stream of research speaks of “unrealistic optimism” in risk assessment and its possible consequences.

While some of these concepts have been very widely researched, there is still little understanding to what extent they reflect the same underlying processes or how they possibly differ from each other. Answering this question may reveal important insights on which aspects should be trained and how their development can be better approached.”

Study Results

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Borderlines (Favorite Quotes)

I recently read Borderlines: A Memoir by Caroline Kraus. This moving book tells the true story of the author’s experience of losing her mother in her early teens and how that grief made her ripe and raw for enmeshment in a mostly platonic relationship with a woman with borderline personality disorder. It’s intense and interesting and sometimes funny.

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I always bookmark my favorite lines that stand out in every book I read. There were a couple from this one:

“Looking back, I see San Francisco as a curious siren. Almost everyone I was about to meet had migrated west for their own vague reasons, following some strange instinct that promised hope. It was a place that seemed ripe with possibility.”

“There is a particular kind of depression of the spirit sometimes associated with the deep introspective stage of transition and change. When this occurs, the Bear is a reminder that there is a prallel between depression and the natural state known as hibernation, when involcvement with the outer world is minimized in order to focus more energy on the inner processes necessary for a successful transition.”

“Memoir is, fundamentally, a literary investigation – a mystery that is cracked by re-creating dialogue and translating settings and action into words. But these are the vehicles to truth and not in themselves the end. There are the facts of this story, and then there is what I make of them. The curved lens of memory adds its angles to the process, shaping every setting, stretch of dialogue, and scene. But the aim of memoir – to transcend personal experience – is a corrective voice to that lens. In the end, the most distilled, captured “truth” is what the author has gleaned, with earnest motivations.”


Applied Spiritual Experience Proposal: Creativity = Spirituality

This past semester included an independent study course on Applied Spirituality. My plan ended up taking shape in creative ways throughout the semester and it ended differently than it begun – but I think that was the point. I thought today I’d share my original proposal for my course.



I am interested in using this course to explore the concept of creativity as a form of spirituality. I want to look at how creative practice can be used to tap into something bigger and more universal than the self, allowing the creativity of whatever created us to move through me as an individual. I am curious how this practice can expand my own creativity and broaden my sense of creative work as a form of spiritual practice. I am also curious how I can use a creative practice to deepen my sense of the spiritual/ the oneness/ the creative flow of the universe.

Nature of Practice

I will be working with the practices of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way workbook series, which essentially says that creativity is a part of our nature and that it is safe and valuable to open ourselves to a creative channel that allows a creative spirit bigger than ourselves to flow through us and work in the world.

The practices of The Artist’s Way specifically include:

  • 3 pages of daily handwritten “flow” writing each morning, daily
  • 1 20-minute meditative walk, daily
  • 1 creative solo “artist’s date” with the self for at least one hour weekly
  • Weekly reading on specific topics
  • Weekly written and creative exercises related to the reading topics

The exercises for each week incorporate a number of different practices including affirmations, mining the past, service to others, seeking synchronicity, etc.

For my daily walk I want to practice three types of walking meditation throughout the weeks. One is a gratitude meditation that I’ve already been doing in my life and find very valuable. One is a more basic meditation coming back to the breath in the body and the ground beneath the feet and working to release attachment to any other thoughts. And finally I want to take this opportunity to deepen the work by using some of the meditative walks to explore/ inquire/ examine/ observe how creativity is working in the world at a more universal, energetic, flow level.

Purpose of the Practice

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