- The child who has never spoken a word and struggles to look his parents in the eye, transforms when he hugs the family dog;
- The teenager who storms out of the psychological assessment her parents spent a fortune on, is able to engage when her new ‘counsellor’ turns out to be a horse;
- And the middle age adult carrying the weight of years of trauma, convinced ‘nothing can help me’, softens as the kitten on her lap starts to purr.
What is it about animals that helps us feel safe, encourages us to express ourselves and somehow teaches us about relationships, life and ourselves; even – possibly especially – when nothing else seems to be working?
And it’s not just during time of challenge in life when the human animal bond pulls us close. Pet ownership in Canada is on the rise, with over 40% of Canadian households now including at least one dog, and close to 40% including at least one cat. Source: Canadian Animal Health Institute Horses are a little less accessible to the average person, however the most recent statistics in Canada (from 2010) showed close to a million horses and horse enthusiasts in our country despite a 70% increase in horse keeping costs over the prior seven years. Source: Canadian Equine Industry Profile Study Results
What draws us to being with animals?
This increase in wanting to connect with and learn from animals is also extending into many fields of human healing and wellness. At first consideration incorporating animals, particularly horses, into a wellness or therapy approach, may simply seem to complicate things, for both the service provider and the client. There are increased risks, additional training and certification requirements, potential for allergies, and a myriad of other considerations.
And yet the fields of equine and animal assisted therapy continue to grow in popularity, credibility, availability and public awareness.
How can animals help those we care about and work with?
Over a series of blog posts we will aim to shed light on all of these questions and more; hopefully gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of why and how interacting, developing relationships and simply being with animals – be it in our home, within a therapeutic environment or elsewhere – can benefit us in multiple ways.
This series will explore the following:
- What the research has to say about the human animal bond.
- How animals can provide people with the motivation to seek out help.
- Why many of us feel safer in the company of animals and how this can be drawn upon within a healing approach.
- How animals can help create three key conditions shown to be necessary and conducive for healing and growth to arise: genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard.
- Why both what we have in common with animals, and how we differ, allows us to turn to animals as role models, and to learn about ourselves from watching and interacting with them.
- What animals have to teach us about both play and rest.
- How incorporating animals in to a therapeutic environment can help us create the conditions of true play, and why this may be the greatest way to achieve emotional wellness, healing and growth.
- How animals can invite us to understand, feel and express our emotions in a healthier way.
I look forward to taking this journey with you!
I really enjoy your blog posts Sue. They are clear and easy to read and for the people who are curious about equine facilitated wellness, they provide comprehensive answers that paint images that can be understood. Thank you!
Susan Cressy, MA, EFW-CAN
Highlands Gate Wellness
I would have to agree with you. From the first moment I walked into Healing Hooves, I have continued to enjoy the way in which Sue presents information!
I wonder if for many people easier to connect with animals then humans at times! ‘they’ say we need human connection but our social relationships can also be the biggest stress inducer…might be why I have so many animals?!. lol
Thank you for this great introduction to animal assisted therapy (equine therapy) Sue. I also look forward to taking this journey with you and the horses.
Great intro! I am really looking forward to the rest of this series.
Looking forward to the rest of the series! Love working with animals, especially horses!
Great intro information for people to begin the process of understanding this field of work.
This is a very important series to cover! Lots of people ask – well why horses? Why dogs? Why cats? etc. We might know from personal experience, though in order to explain this to others, the supporting research and information will help provide an educated response.
Looking forward to this series! I happen to also be taking an Introduction to Animal Assisted Interventions with Dreamcatchers and I’m really enjoying how all these ideas are linked together 🙂
I couldn’t agree more – animals make a difference in our lives: around feeling safe, loved, seen… it’s good to learn so many people are recognizing that and welcoming animals into their lives.
Looking forward to this series. I see connection/bond with animals regularly and look forward to exploring the why behind this.
I’m really looking forward to covering these topics, and gaining the knowledge to promote the biophylia hypothesis. You do an incredible job of presenting the information in a manner that is clear and concise Sue. Thank you!
Great examples showing the ability of animals to connect with people that struggle with connection!
The power of animals is amazing when all they have to offer us is their presence. But through that connection they offer a lot more.
Looking forward to this next step in the learning journey.
Very curious about the “conditions of true play!”
This is wonderful Sue! Even though we may know the benefits from personal experience with animals, this helps to explain when we are asked, “What exactly is it that you are doing?”
I get the answer to “Why Horses” every time I am able to spend time with my horse and a client. It is so powerful in so many ways!
Love this article! I think as many of us can relate to animals ourselves and find the space and motivation to “be”, it makes sense to want to help experience the same type of healing and play time that we have experienced. Great reminder of the importance of this work.
I am fortunate enough to have always been involved with animals and I can remember thousands of times they helped me and continue to help me.
I appreciate how animals can motivate us to seek help, or draw us in when uncertain of the help. Simply the petting/connecting with this animal without expectation quiets and calms the nervous system, bringing us into a healthier state of regulation
Hi Aprille – you may like some of the Heartmath research that is out there now – it explores some aspects of coregulation and also specifically looks at how this can happen between people and horses.
I actually got to see this happen the other day. We were out riding as a family and with the mares being in heat, the geldings were prancing a bit around. The interesting thing was, one of our family members (who is 6) was getting worried and then slowed her breathing and got quiet. – so did her horse!! Such a neat thing to witness.
Excited to more fully understand the why and how behind the things we already know to be true!
It seems to me that animals has a lot to teach us about a person-centred way of being with others. It is wonderful to hear how many people are owning pets, and I was surprised to read that so many people own horses. One thing I have been wondering about, and it is probably very hard to measure is how we can determine if AAT has the same impact as pet ownership. Establishing a human-animal bond between a pet owner and pet over a lifetime makes sense, but how do we determine how much time a client needs in therapy with a therapy animal to receive the same benefits or comparable benefits?
That would make a great research question! I know of studies that compare pet owners to non pet owners, and others that compare before and after re AAT, but I don’t know of any studies that compare AAT to pet ownership. There are so many factors involved too, especially the quality of the relationship. One thing I can say though is that, in my experience, people regularly bond with the animals within AAT very quickly.
I am very interested in learning more in the upcoming “conditions of true play”. Also curious as Jacqueline mentioned about studies comparing pet ownership and AAT. Do people who have pets at home already go to animal therapy? Would AAT be as effective with pet owners?
Hi Janet – we explore play in depth during focus training. But if you’d like a sneak peak now we have a blog post on play you can look at right away: https://healinghooves.ca/horse-play-in-a-pandemic/
That is a good question about pet ownership – part of the difference in AAT though is that someone else is facilitating/ guiding the healing process and there are lots of different aspects that come in here. The benefits of the pet ownership though would be the depth and consistency of the relationship. Both have unique benefits so I agree it would be interesting to see a study compare the two!
I’m very excited for this journey! Animals are amazing healers!
This is just lovely Sue. To put it in words what’s been seen and felt. I’m so looking forward to learning more
I always knew I had a special connection and attraction to animals, like so many of you, since my first memories have imprinted in my mind.
What is it about animals that I cannot watch them suffer, even in artificial representation like in a movie, I have to look away, unable to watch, fearful of having the image of their pain, fear, confusion burned in my memory. Yet I can tolerate much more when it comes to the same with people. Until I became a mother many years ago and now the same responses apply to children.
For me, I believe this to speak to the innocence of animals and children, their dependency and vulnerability. Their mutual resilence to forgive even the most harshest treatment. And the completely transparent and unconditional love that shines through their eyes.
well said Sara!
I agree with you here Sara. I can no longer tolerate watching the suffering of animals or children, real or as you say “represented”. You capture their resilience and forgiveness so beautifully here. ♥
The ability to love and care for an animal shows healthy emotional development in a child. we live in a world that states healthy people are too sensitive. the truth is we need more sensitive people in leadership positions.
I totally agree! I think you would like the material on heightened sensitivity Jacquie – http://www.hsperson.com
I really enjoyed reading the three points at the beginning about how much being with animals can impact us. I have never worked with animals in a therapy session before but I agree with the statement that being with animals helps us to feel safe. I am excited to learn more!
Sue, your writing is exquisite. You provide such an incredible depth of experience, research, and brilliance in all of your blogs, books, and feedback offered to all of us through this comment thread. I feel much gratitude for all that is here, and a bit overwhelmed at just how much incredible content there is here!
Thank you Carol for these kind and generous words!
It truly is amazing to see how animals help people. I never would have considered it possible to take something I value so much and incorporate it into my “working” life. I am so grateful for this journey!
Thanks for this post Sue. It is no surprise that more households have invited animals to cohabitate – people innately feel the regulation that takes place when with animals in a safe way. Just look at all the pet supply shops and merchandise that is being bought for pets!!! No expense spared 🙂
I have been with dogs my whole life. Frequent interactions with horses is relatively new for me; within the last few years and on an irregular basis. I have to say I am hooked and intrigued… being a prey animal their human interaction is different from dogs and cats, much more intuitive – it is on a different and for me, a more spiritual level.
I am here today because my dog, at 10 weeks old, jumped on my breast and created a lump where nothing existed. Upon going to the doctor, I was immediately sent to a clinic for ultrasound, mammogram and when the radiologist came in, he stated, I can “feel” this lump you describe, but I cannot find it on either imaging ultrasound or mammogram. He asked, may I biopsy 3 different areas of this breast?
He performed the biopsies, and when they came back, I had both Ductal and Invasive Cancer within my breast. An 18.4 centimetre, yes centimetre tumour.
That was in 2015. My dog still watches over me today. She knows. Animals know. The relationship goes both ways. Animals get from us just as much as we get from them!! As evidenced by abused animals who become life long friends to their saviour as well as the person who attaches to the animal that invites safety through all of the aspects, nurturing, socialization, stimulation, unconditional love, etc.
I am a HUGE advocate of animals and the innate healing properties we each offer each other!! Dogs, horses, cats, snakes, bunnies, you name it 🙂
There are so many benefits of owning a pet. I I find myself wanting to relate to my pets more than people sometimes. I think it has to do with animals making me feel safe, and showing empathy. I enjoy that my horses teach me to play, rest and learn more about myself through my interaction with them. It is hard to find the same level of empathy, safety and learning with people sometimes.
I was particularly interested in the section on what we have in common with horses and how we differ. I think, as humans, it’s easy to place ourselves in a position of power over animals, when in reality, there is so much we can learn from animals, and so many ways they can help us to grow. Great series.
This is a great article, Sue, explaining why we are drawn to animals. Although not everyone has grown up on a farm or even had the luxury of having pets, I do believe every one of us has a deep=rooted connection with animals. We have been evolving alongside, – and domesticating along the way – animals, with dogs being the oldest human pet.
It is great seeing that this field ( AAT/EFW) is growing more and more. One silver-lining of the last 16 months ( Global Pandemic) is that there appears to be a significant push back to nature ( gardening, outdoor recreation, hobby farming, hometeading, etc). WIth this shift back to where we once were, I believe it will also take this field to another level.
I was seeing it a bit before the pademic – I was in a meeting with social development a few years back, and they were saying they need other services for youth, other than the standard ” sit in an office and talk to a counsellor.”
I am very grateful that you ( and many like yourself) have paved the way for all of us newbies looking to enter this amazing field!
I agree – there is definitely a bit of a shift happening!
Something that caught my eye reading this article again is that animals can teach us both about play AND rest. I hadn’t really considered the “rest” part before, but that’s definitely something I want to ruminate on.
yes they are both so important!
Reading this article I immediately thought of how grateful I am to my animals, who can provide me with safe physical contact and affection during these unprecedented times. Physical affection and connection is integral to our wellbeing and animals offer us this. Thank you for the article Sue!
Great info Sue, looking forward to the rest of the series. I agree JulieLalonde, especially during these times, imagine how much it is helping the families isolating when then have animals for comfort.
Wow. This blog was so powerful and straightforward! I love this sentence “How incorporating animals in to a therapeutic environment can help us create the conditions of true play, and why this may be the greatest way to achieve emotional wellness, healing and growth.” It really makes me reflect on the gifts of play offered by all animals and the lightness that they bring to my life. I truly believe that as we age we forget how to play and rest and this is a great source of our suffering lack of resiliency. I am so excited to incorporate play into my sessions along with all the joy and levity that animals bring.
I loved this blog Sue! I wholeheartedly agree with Elicia’s comment about how we lose the ability to prioritize rest and play as we age. Unlike humans, animals are uniquely adept at honoring their own strengths, limitations and boundaries. I am a firm believer in an animal’s ability to teach us how to be more present, mindful of ourselves and our surroundings and to pay attention to what actually brings us joy in the moment.
I like how you express this Amy: “pay attention to what actually brings us joy in the moment.” We could do with doing much more of this!
I agree 100%
You statement “animals can help create three key conditions shown to be necessary and conducive for healing and growth to arise: genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard” really resonates with me. In working with my forensic mental health clients I have seen how interaction with animals has helped them to develop empathy in addition the opportunity to participate in a caregiving role has helped to break down stigma that they are anitisocial, dangerous, and untrustworthy.
sounds like you have been doing some really powerful work Amanda!
I can clearly remember how I felt only truly understood and accepted by my animals at different ages and stages of my life. I was fortunate to grow up with a variety of pets (dogs, cats, horses) and looking back they each had a special role to play and filled different needs at different times. One of the benefits of moving to online sessions over the pandemic is that I often witness my clients with their pet and it brings a whole layer of therapeutic insight and opportunity.
The statement animals help us to learn about ourselves is so true in my experience. They help us to be mindful of our mannerisms and mindset; which can be particularly beneficial in assisting us to be present in their presence.
I’ve experienced first hand my animals ability to show me where I land emotionally. Looking forward to learning the language so that others awareness may broaden as well.
I wonder if one of the reasons we feel safe with animals is that they don’t apologize for their presence or their needs and desires. If they want to approach, they do. If they want to walk away, they do. If they are a 100 lb Great Dane and want to sprawl on your lap, they will. When a cat wants affection, it doesn’t ask if wanting to rub on you is appropriate, it just goes ahead and rubs. I think that not apologizing for who they are helps us to feel we don’t need to apologize for who we are either.
That is a great reflection Andrea and yes, I think this is an important part of animals’ genuineness and a way they can be great role models for us in terms of being real and emotionally honest
love this Andrea! so true
My own animals have helped me through really difficult moments. I know firsthand how calming and reassuring their presence is. I am very drawn to the idea of watching animals help people heal, maybe because of my own experience with it. Looking forward to learning more!
I love the point about animals teaching us to play and rest. While kids process through play, I think it is more difficult for adults to access parts of themselves that allow capacity and permission for play and rest.
so true! We have a couple of blog posts specifically about play later on in this series and then we dive into this in more depth in Focus training – so lots more to come!
I think it is interesting to read about the benefits Sue has listed of being around animals and seeing how during a global pandemic so many have welcomed a pet into their home to consciously (or unconsciously?) assist with emotional regulation needs, and to help them feel safer during a time when we were isolated from human contact. It makes me wonder if we will see another increase in research around AAT due to this rise in pet ownership during this stressful, and often lonely period in human history?
I think this would be a great research topic! Or even looking at how people have coped with the pandemic comparing those with and without animals at home.
The draw to be with animals is so common! I have been introduced to many pets lately, thanks to virtual meetings with folks, and this has been a nice common ground to begin with.
Yes! This has been one of the pluses with doing online sessions – we get to meet (online) our clients’ animals and see them interacting together! As it’s not always possible to have a client bring one of their own animals to in person sessions this is a great opportunity!
I would love to see what research comes out of the pandemic, specifically on how adopting a pet helped people cope with the fear, stress, and isolation caused by COVID-19. I would be really interested as well to see how pet ownership benefited children who were not able to go to school during the lockdowns.
yes – it will be interesting to see!
Reading this article it prompted me to reflect on all the ways that animals have and presently are helping me and guiding me as you identify them in this article. Thanks for sharing!
You’re very welcome Jill – I’m glad you liked it, and there is much more to come in the rest of the series!
Thank you Sue for another brilliant article. I think this is a perfect summary of what draws so many of us to explore and learn more about EFW and AAT.
I think the biophilia hypothesis is bang on. We are hard wired to make connections with nature and other living things but for some people the wires are all tangled.
I also want to point out that some people refer to being with the animals as ‘magic’. Although there is no doubt that the feeling is often fantastic, I think a person should be very cautious, especially if they are providing the AAI, that they do not refer to it as ‘magic’. Focusing on the scientific evidence is much more credible.
Love this point Judy–I agree. Looking forward to learning more about the science!
I love that we are so connected to the animals. I read an article on why horses and it talked about the mirror neutrons and that they have the most out of any animals. I’d love to learn more about that.
I’ve heard this too Keltie although also am not an expert in the area of mirror neurons! I do have heartmath training though and there’s some great research within that community around co regulation between horses and humans which may touch on some of the same things!
These examples highlight just how powerful our interactions with animals can be! They have so much to offer and I feel privileged to be on this journey!
Me too Selina – it certainly is a privilege!
I appreciated how you incorporated all the links for further reading into this article. Thank you Sue, for so much depth and knowledge!
The joy of non-judgmental acceptance by animals and the confidence to implement boundaries when they feel their own well-being is not being respected can be the greatest teacher of all times. They are humbling and awe inspiring
The human-animal bond is so cool. I experienced it deeply as a kid growing up on a farm and now I am sharing that experience with my own children as well. I am very excited to bring it into my counselling therapy practice in an effort to help those who do not respond to traditional modes of psychotherapy.
I am excited to learn more and grateful to have all the resources linked in the above article.
As always, thanks for your contribution to this field, Sue!
you’re welcome John!
I think it is so important that we continue to explore the relationships between animals and humans. these bonds that are developed are so important and can have such amazing healing and empowering benefits for both the animals and humans. I continue to see the change and growth in our students every time they interact with our therapy animals.
I agree Katherine – there is so much more for us to learn too!