Animal Assisted Therapy for Trauma

(Robinson, 2019)

I have always been interested in animals and therapeutic effects they can have for humans. Animal assisted therapies are often used in cases of mental health services for patient trauma, and there are also many instances in which we see animals as a therapeutic mechanism for those who have engaged in criminogenic behavior.

It is no surprise that animal-assisted therapies can be incredibly helpful in cases of trauma. Puppies Behind Bars (PBB) is a New York program “committed to mitigating and increasing the awareness of PTSD” (Robinson, 2019). PBB incorporates prison inmates to raise the service dogs, and then uses the service dogs to help veterans and first responders with PTSD. It consists of a 14 day long process, called “team training”, that incorporates the inmates, dogs, and first responders and veterans. (Robinson, 2019) After learning everything we have in this course, it is evident that this social support that is developed in this program is beneficial to the inmates and veterans and first responders alike, as social support is incredibly important in therapy and rehabilitation of any kind. The founder of this program, Gloria Sotga, explains that she has “seen that dogs bring out the best in people, regardless of their circumstances, and by working together with a common goal…the divisions between people on the “outside” versus people on the “inside” begin to blur” (quoted in Robinson, 2019). In addition to social supports and working toward a common goal, Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to lower blood pressure as well (Robinson, 2019), and this can occur from something as simple as watching fish in an aquarium. A 2015 systematic review by O’Haire, Guerin, and Kirkham found that in those who have experienced trauma, including those with PTSD, animal assisted therapy, showed reduced depression, reduced PTSD symptomology, and reduced anxiety. These therapies consisted mainly of dogs, but horses and other farm animals were also examined (O’Haire et. al, 2015). Activities in these animal assisted therapies can include anything from incorporating dogs into clinic-based therapy sessions, and an interesting factor was that “the effects of dogs were generally enhanced by telling a therapeutic story about the dog, which may be attributed to giving the dog a role and integrated purpose in the therapy session, rather than being a mere entity in the room” (O’Haire et. al, 2015, p. 5). In my personal opinion, I think that this speaks to the social aspect of trauma, as even though these therapy animals are in fact animals, it is important to develop connection and understanding between beings in order to alleviate existing trauma. 

Another example of animal-assisted therapy for trauma that is relevant to this course in particular is using animal-assisted therapy within the prison system. An article from Dell and Poole (2015) discusses how “therapy dogs can assist in supporting individuals with mental health, addiction, and trauma concerns” (p. 1). They discuss how in Canada, a St. John Ambulance therapy dog volunteer program was used to take a trauma-based approach to therapies for inmates in a Saskatoon psychiatric facility, which was comprised of about 200 inmates and 350 staff (Dell & Poole, 2015). The therapy dog would visit prisoners for around 30 minutes, and the prisoners were chosen based on their complex mental health needs, which included “self-harm, childhood trauma, mental illness, substance abuse, and posttraumatic stress disorder” (Dell & Poole, 2015). They explain that physical touch, a basic human need, is accomplished by therapy animals, and that often those who have experienced trauma may associate physical touch with such trauma. For example, Bartol & Bartol (2017) stated that 92% of juvenile female offenders have “been subjected to some form of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse in or outside the home” (Bartol & Bartol, 2017, p. 149). Therefore, using animals “can satisfy the…need for physical contact and touch without the fear of the complications that accompany contact with human beings” (Dell & Poole, 2015, p. 7). Animals also allow for interacting and bonding, healing, and provide judgement free interaction that often may not occur, as inmates, especially those with addiction, can often be met with stigma and judgement (Dell & Poole, 2015). We have discussed almost every week how stigma and judgement can affect everything from seeking treatment to relapse, as well as advocacy for the development of services and policy changes.

Animal assisted therapy can be helpful in a variety of instances for those who have experienced trauma in their lifetime. It has been shown to reduce PTSD symptomology, as well as depression and anxiety, in recipients. It can also be used in the prison system in order to help rehabilitate those inmates that have experienced various traumas within their lifetime. This can be especially helpful with juvenile, female inmates, as they are highly likely to have experienced some form of trauma or abuse. Animals are able to make connections that people may not, and provide a judgement-free experience that may not be possible in human to human interaction. Animals can also provide a less traumatic means of physical touch, which is a common need for humans that can often be affected by prior abuse. With the use of dogs, horses, and other animals, a more trauma-friendly means of therapy may be possible for those who are in need of rehabilitation. 


Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2017). Criminal behavior: A psychological approach. Boston: 


Dell, A. & Poole, N. (2015). Taking a PAWS to reflect on how the work of a therapy dog supports 

a trauma-informed approach to prisoner health. J Forensic Nurs, 11(3), p. 167–173.

Robinson, B. (4 November 2019). Mental health is going to the dogs: how pet therapy helps 

wounded vets and first responders. Retrieved from


O’Haire, M. E., Guérin, N. A., & Kirkham, A. C. (2015). Animal-assisted intervention for trauma: 

a systematic literature review. Frontiers in psychology, 6

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