coupleandMilleThe simplest intervention with an animal is simply to allow that animal to be present and to interact freely with the clients. A good therapy animal will approach the individuals equally and enjoy being pet. Therapy cats, like Norman, will enjoy sitting on laps, and he has a keen sense of when a client needs a little kiss (he’ll gently touch his nose to their nose or lips). These simple interactions with clients help reduce the anxiety and stress (this has been clinically demonstrated), and can help provide a calming atmosphere. Having an animal in the room lowers the emotional temperature. I have found that couples fight less and listen to each other more when an animal is in the room.

The next intervention relates to this last comment. A good therapy animal will react to stress, high anxiety, loud voices, or excessive anger, by retreating to a safe place. They act as a mirror (much like the partner and children do). This provides the therapist an opportunity to point out the animal’s behavior and ask the couple to interpret what they think has happened. The therapist can then bring that back to the couple, asking them to reflect on how that behavior impacts others in the family. They then can practice new ways of talking and interacting with the goal of keeping the animal around. If they can have a serious, intense discussion while a cat sits calmly between them, they have learned some new ways to manage their emotions, while still being able to effectively communicate. Of course, in between the therapist is doing all the things a therapist does to improve the communication and help them to recognize the issues they need to work through together. In other words, if the therapist is using Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy, that approach still applies; the AAT acts as an adjunctive modality. So in this case, the animal will continually act as that mirror as they go through that therapeutic process.

What I have described is the most basic of interventions that are uniquely suited for an animal co-therapist. For a couple that enjoys working with the animal, there are many other ways that the animal can help. If you are interested in working with one of our Couples and Family  Animal Assisted Psychotherapists, please call us at 720-266-4444 x0 or click HERE to send us an email.

If  you are a clinician and think this is a modality that you would like to use in your practice I would encourage you to seek out a good training program to develop your competency before you undertake the risk of including an animal in your practice. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about where to find training. I can be reached at lchassman@aatpc.org or you can find our training by clicking HERE