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.
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, http://www.Deltasociety.org; Therapy Dogs International, http://www.tdi.org).” 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.
- Ascione, F., Weber, C., and Wood, D. (1997). The Abuse of Animals and Domestic Violence: A National Survey of Shelters for Women Who Are Battered. Society and Animals, 1997, 5(3). Retrieved online 3/31/15 from http://www.vachss.com/guest_dispatches/ascione_1.html.
- Kraus, J. Stress in Pet Owners and Non-Pet Owners. Retrieved online 3/31/15 from http://www.petpartners.org/document.doc?id=120.
- Sifferlin, A. (2014). The Dog Will See You Now. TIME Health Psychology, 2/5/14. Retrieved online 3/31/15 from http://time.com/4498/the-dog-will-see-you-now/.
- Walsh, F. (2009). Human-Animal Bonds II: The Role of Pets in Family Systems and Family Therapy. Family Process 48:481–499, 2009. Retrieved online 3/31/15 from http://www.kenrodogtraining.com/upload/human.pdf.