This blog post is part of a series exploring the value and benefits of spending time with horses and other animals, including within a therapeutic environment. See our previous post: Why Horses for an introduction to, and overview of what the expect from, this series. 

A growing body of research indicates that interactions and relationships with animals can have a wide range of positive impacts on our physical, emotional, mental and social well being, development and health. Numerous studies have discovered that we humans experience more rapid recovery rates after surgery, higher levels of self esteem and empathy, lower levels of anxiety and even better communication in our marriages; all as a result of having a positive relationship with an animal. Other researchers have discovered that simply the presence of an animal – without the need for any interaction – can create many of the same effects. (For an overview of what the research shows about the human animal bond, see our previous blog post in this series: Why Horses: The Healing Power of Animals)

The focus of this post is to understand WHY these benefits arise through having a positive relationship with, or simply by being in the presence of, an animal. We will discuss three key explanations and ways of understanding the research findings. These are not ‘either or’ explanations but rather support, reinforce and help explain each other.

The Biophilia Hypothesis

Some researchers explain this in terms of our biology. The hypothesis of Biophilia (derived from the Greek words for life and loving) speaks to our evolutionary need to be and feel close to nature, and provides a reason for why our bodies and psyche just seem to know that when all is well with the animals, all is well with us. According to biophilia, all humans have a biologically based attunement to animals and nature. Because we evolved in nature alongside animals we have been shaped to pay attention to them. As hunter gatherers we observed animals to assess the safety of our environment. If they are calm, then we know that all is well. Biophilia suggests that it is because of this genetic attunement that our brains function better and our nervous systems relax when we are around animals.

Providing the Conditions required for Healing and Growth

We could also explain the research findings from another angle. Carol Rogers, founder of Person Centred Counselling, described three conditions that are required for emotional healing and wellness to arise:

Genuineness (Congruency), Unconditional Positive Regard, and Empathy.

Psychology Today defines these conditions as follows:

1) Genuineness or Congruence: therapists carry no air of authority or professional superiority but, instead, present a true and accessible self that clients can see is honest and transparent.

2) Unconditional positive regard:  therapists are non-judgmental to convey their feelings of understanding, trust, and confidence that encourage their clients to make their own decisions and choices.

3) Empathy: therapists understand and accept their clients’ feelings

As much as human counsellors and wellness workers may strive to provide and meet these conditions I can’t help but believe that animals, including horses, do this so much more naturally and effectively.  Added to this is the reality that many people, especially those who have had challenging experiences with people, are more ready and able to believe and receive these conditions from an animal, than they are from a person. Time and again I meet clients who struggle, at least initially, to accept and perceive the existence of these conditions with and from me; yet they are frequently able to receive and experience them from and with my horses.

There is just something about animals that exudes congruency, unconditional positive regard and empathy

Animals are naturally authentic and it would simply not occur to them to present any sort of professional facade. In short, they are genuine and congruent.

Animals often seem to be more able to see and accept us ‘just as we are’ without judging us based on what we may have done, what we look like, or where we have been in life. This speaks to Unconditional Positive Regard. In terms of a child’s developmental and attachment needs, Dr. Gordon Neufeld would describe this as the ‘invitation to exist in my presence, just as you are”. Which is something I believe we all need, regardless of age.

Finally,  Carl Rogers described empathy as follows:

‘If I am truly open to the way life is experienced by another person…if I can take his or her world into mine, then I risk seeing life in his or her way…and of being changed myself, and we all resist change. Since we all resist change, we tend to view the other person’s world only in our terms, not in his or hers. Then we analyze and evaluate it. We do not understand their world. But, when the therapist does understand how it truly feels to be in another person’s world, without wanting or trying to analyze or judge it, then the therapist and the client can truly blossom and grow in that climate’.

Animals are unlikely to ‘analyse, judge or evaluate’ what they sense in us, and when I am with them I often feel understood in a way that is sometimes hard to describe or put words to, but is certainly reflected in what I hear from my clients regarding their relationships and interactions with animals.

While some of the above would be challenging to show in quantitative research it is supported by a vast body of anecdotal evidence and is consistently reflected in the qualitative research.

Providing the conditions of true play

Closely linked to all of the above is the hypothesis that some interactions and relationships with animals can provide the conditions for true play.  This is a longer topic which first requires a discussion of what we mean by true play, so will be the focus of a subsequent article in this series.


The Social Lubricant Effect

The human animal bond research also indicates the existence of the ‘Social Lubricant Effect’. This refers to an inherent perception that people with animals are simply better people. Most of us are more likely to interact with a person who has an animal with them, and are more likely to trust those people. It seems very likely that this is, at least in part, a result of the Biophilia hypothesis, which would indicate that the social lubricant effect would likely only be effective if the animal in question is calm and appears to feel safe with us.

If all is well with the animals, all is well with us.

There is danger in this – it is after all the same dynamic that pedophiles use to lure children into their vehicles – and whether we are aware of it or not we are using this dynamic to overcome people’s defenses; defenses which may be in place for good reasons. I strongly believe we have a moral and ethical responsibility to move slowly and respectfully in this area; to honour that someone’s trust is a precious gift and should be treated accordingly.

However, when drawn upon responsibly, ethically and carefully this aspect of human and animal nature can help create the conditions defined by Carl Rogers in a wide range of environments. From and within this context we can continue to draw on the various benefits of the human animal bond to help ourselves and those we care about and work with.

Our next post will explore the motivational aspect of animals, including the power of animals to encourage people to seek help, to inspire hope in the future and to help us find the courage to reach out to each other.

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