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Animal-Assisted Therapy for Troubled Teens

By: Christine Hawkins, MSW

As a 220-pound St. Bernard, Samson had quite a presence. Even as a puppy, he had the ability to connect with children and youth with special needs, and we soon certified him as an Animal-Assisted Therapy dog. He often accompanied me to my job as a counselor at a boarding school for at-risk teens where he had a way of getting the attention of even the most difficult-to-reach youth.

The day after we lost Samson, I could hardly get myself out of bed much less go to work. When I arrived that morning, the school had just enrolled a new 15-year-old female student. Her mother had sent her to the school in hopes of saving the girl from serious self-destructive behaviors that included cutting and drug abuse. The student spent much of her first day refusing to eat or communicate with anyone. I met her in one of our counseling rooms where she was folding herself into the fetal position. My offer to help her was ignored and my effort to speak with her was not received.

Desperately missing Samson, I began telling the student of this very special "Saint" and all the good he had accomplished. She shifted her head and leaned in a bit and seemed to be listening. At least she had stopped the loud sobbing. As I went on and on about Samson, I heard a very faint, "Thirteen."  Thirteen?  "I HAVE THIRTEEN!" she cried, and the yelling and sobbing resumed until she was able to catch her breath and explain that she had thirteen animals at home. She was sure she had abandoned them by being sent to the school. Recognizing her grief and the sense of duty she felt in caring for her pets, her therapeutic team was able to incorporate her love for animals into her treatment plan. This student was later selected to work with the on-campus Search and Rescue Dog program, and over the next year her self-confidence and self-respect increased dramatically. She not only achieved academic success, but found the courage to become involved in other activities including acting in the school plays.

Anyone who has ever loved a pet knows about an animal's ability to comfort us, reduce anxiety, nurture empathy, and enhance quality of life. Unfortunately, and for a variety of societal and personal reasons, many people today lack the time, ability and/or motivation to develop and benefit from a human-animal bond. This is especially true of high-risk teens.

The trials and tribulations experienced by today's teenagers manifest as psychological diagnoses, including ADD, ADHD, ODD, OCD, depression, bi-polar, conduct disorder, and alcohol and drug abuse; and behaviors that include stealing, self-mutilation, promiscuity, eating disorders, and the compulsive use of computers.  Add financial stress, divorce, adoption issues, trauma or grief, and the need for peer acceptance, and teen behavior can quickly spiral out of control. In the face of such challenges, connecting with nature and animals can provide at least some of the comfort and peace a troubled teen so desperately needs.

Incorporating Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) as an additional intervention within a youth's treatment/educational plan is a fairly new concept.  It wasn't until the early 1960s that Boris Levinson, an American child psychologist, looked at the possibilities of using animals therapeutically.  Dr. Levinson had been working for months to connect with a disturbed, nonverbal child when a chance encounter with Dr. Levinson's dog elicited the child's first response and opened the lines of communication. (Hooker, Freeman & Stewart, 2002).  Thus, the term "pet therapy" evolved, and research has grown from anecdotal stories to scientific findings.  In 1977, with the successful use of animals in a vast array of therapeutic situations and scenarios, the Delta Society emerged to organize and encourage pet therapy or "animal-assisted therapy" (ATT).

AAT is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is delivered and/or directed by a health/human service provider working within the scope of his/her profession.  AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning, thinking and intellectual skills.  AAT is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature. The process is documented and evaluated. (Delta Society, 2004, p. 11)

AAT can foster interconnectivity while encouraging a teen's active participation in a treatment plan. The unconditional acceptance experienced with a therapy animal is mutually beneficial. Self-esteem and self-perception improve when teenagers connect with animals and discover that they have something to offer in return.  Once they see that they're capable of maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship, they can apply the experience to human relationships in other environments, including school or work. As the teen acquires a sense of place and purpose, an increase in self-acceptance makes it easier to behave in positive and healthy ways.

Studies have shown that adolescents in a therapeutic setting are more open to communication and experience less tension and anxiety when a therapy animal is present, and that the stigma and judgments they associate with therapy are minimized (Hooker et al., 2002).  Another study showed that AAT effectively reduced aggressive behavior in the classroom by requiring students to care for and be responsible for the well-being of the class hamster (Flom, 2005).  The students learned that the hamster was more likely to bite when feeling threatened or hurt.  In making that connection, the students were given a sense of purpose and their social interaction improved. Parents of the students reported a decrease in aggressive behavior and an increase in self-calm and impulse control.

Dr. Cynthia Weaver's casebook, Sinclair's Listening Ears: The Journey of a Feline Social Worker, offers several case histories that exemplify how an animal can be a powerful tool in therapy. Weaver presented the case of John, a young male grieving the death of his mother. John clearly did not wish to engage with Dr. Weaver or the therapy process.  However, the presence of "Sinclair," a therapy cat, immediately caught John's attention. Not only did his mood improve, but he was able to embrace the therapy process by using Sinclair for a transitional relationship.  Because John once had a cat that died, he was able to recognize and discuss that loss first, and eventually work through the death of his mother. (Weaver, 2003, p. 10-11).

AAT can be used with teens to achieve a variety of other therapeutic goals, including handling fear. By working with a therapeutic animal that has been rescued from an abusive environment, a teen can learn how fear and suffering can subside where stable relationships and trust exist.  Over time, and with love and support, the abused animal that initially fled from human contact or help gradually opens up and becomes vulnerable again to human touch. Observing such an animal, a teenager learns that with hard work and perseverance, trusting others and respecting one's self is possible.

Today there is much positive support for AAT, given the joy, interconnectivity and relief to be found in the presence of a therapeutic animal.  AAT can enhance the therapeutic relationship while awakening compassion, responsibility and self-worth that can benefit at-risk teens.


Delta Society. (2004). Team training course manual. (6th ed.).  Renton, Washington: Delta Society.

Flom, B. (2005). Counseling with pocket pets: Using small animals in elementary counseling programs.  Professional School Counseling, 8(5) 469-473.

Hooker, S., Freeman, L. & Stewart, P. (2002).  Pet therapy research: A historical review [Electronic version.]  Holistic Nursing Practice, 17-23.

Weaver, C. J. (2003). Sinclair's listening ears: The journey of a feline social worker. Lanham, Maryland:  University Press of America.

Author Information:  Christine Hawkins, MSW


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