As a nation of animal lovers, many of us appreciate the benefits of spending time with our furry friends, from providing companionship to boosting physical activity. Now, a growing number of specialists are highlighting animal therapy’s role in alleviating some of society’s severest mental health issues.
The pace of modern life has never been more demanding, with millions of us experiencing high levels of stress. The good news is that increasing scientific research suggests that spending time with animals can relieve some of these issues, improving our physical and mental health and equipping us with the tools to face everyday challenges head-on.
Sarah Birrane, owner and director at Empowering Equine, is passionate about introducing more people to the transformative power of animal therapy through her work as an Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) Practitioner. This supports people to build social and emotional skills and improve their mental health and wellbeing through exercises and horse interactions.
As Sarah explains, “The focus is on what is happening in your life and also what you would like your future to look like and building the skill sets to work towards that. Equine therapy works well with children and young people with social, emotional, and mental health needs, neurodiversity, and those dealing with life changes or trauma. Working hands-on to connect young people with horses helps them develop social and emotional skills. This helps people become more aware of themselves, their strengths and challenges, their emotional responses, and how this affects their behaviour, their interactions with others, and their ability to achieve their goals in life.”
Anyone can benefit from EFL, but it is particularly effective for those who struggle with talking therapies and learn and process more from experiencing and doing things actively rather than purely talking. Young people are particularly receptive as they tend to learn more through hands-on learning and communicate more through behaviour than verbally. Demand has continued to rise as more people experience the benefits; between 80% to 90% of young people registered improvements in their social and emotional skills.
It isn’t just Equine therapy. Another popular furry friend proving to be helpful and effective are dogs. Sandra Wright, founder of Paws 4 Recovery, is equally committed to promoting the therapeutic benefits of dogs through her animal-assisted wellbeing offering.
“Dogs have this amazing ability to understand our emotions without us saying a word. They’re like emotional superheroes, sensing when we’re stressed, anxious, or down in the dumps, and their unconditional love creates a safe space where you can be yourself without judgment.” Sandra is keen to highlight the science behind animal-assisted therapy. “When you pet a dog, your body releases the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin. It’s like a natural stress-buster that helps you relax and feel more connected. At the same time, cortisol, the stress hormone, dips, reducing your anxiety levels. Spending time with dogs also unleashes endorphins – the body’s natural happy drug, lifting your mood.”
There are positive results from dog therapy in support of a whole field of mental health issues, from PTSD to those on the autism spectrum and across every age demographic. Interacting with therapy dogs can improve social skills and self-regulation, increase self-esteem, and provide a sense of comfort and support during more challenging times.
“I am eager for the world to realize that animal intervention can have transformational benefits for all, not just those in crisis or diagnosed with a mental health condition. It’s also an excellent empowerment tool to help people understand how they can adjust and thrive in this, often bumpy, ride of life.”