Pawsome Therapy: How Dogs are Boosting Teen Spirits in Treatment Centers

When we think of therapy for troubled teens, it’s common to imagine sessions with psychologists, medications, and support groups. However, researchers at Washington State University have discovered an unexpected and heartwarming source of relief – dogs.

Conducting their study at the Excelsior Youth Center, a residential treatment program for teens, the researchers introduced the young participants to dogs from the Spokane Humane Society. The teenage boys would spend their Friday afternoons brushing, feeding, and playing with their new furry friends. Their interaction with the dogs was transformative, resulting in improved mood and a more positive demeanor.

Let’s explore how this simple interaction between dogs and troubled teens has brought about such promising results.

The Emotional Effects of Interacting with Dogs

Lindsay Ellsworth, one of the researchers, found that the interaction with the dogs had significant effects on the teenagers. She reports that some of the most common words used by the teens to describe their post-interaction moods were “excited,” “energetic,” and “happy.”

It is well-known that dogs and humans have shared a special bond since ancient times. But Ellsworth aimed to dig deeper, focusing her research on how dog-interaction activities could affect the mood of teenagers living in residential treatment centers. She was struck by how calm and focused the teenagers became around the dogs, noting that the increase in positive emotions was easily observable.

When asked to describe their favorite part of working with the dogs, boys in the program commented on the love they shared with the animals and the opportunity to take their minds off their troubles. They talked about giving dogs treats, sharing love with the dogs, putting their minds at ease, and cherishing their time together with their canine therapy friends.

Measuring the Impact of Dog Therapy

To get a clearer understanding of the effects of dog therapy, participants were asked to identify their moods on a scale of one to five. Using the PANAS-X, a self-reporting method that psychologists use to measure and study emotions, the teenagers shared descriptions of their mood before and after the dog-interaction activities.

Researchers found that not only did joviality increase, but so did positive affect (the experience of feelings or emotions), attentiveness, and serenity. At the same time, overall sadness decreased. This therapy proved to be beneficial for the participants, many of whom were also being treated for ADHD, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Broader Implications of Dog Therapy

What does researching the impact of dog therapy on troubled teenagers mean for others? It highlights that mental health treatment doesn’t always have to involve medications or structured therapy sessions. Instead, alternative methods can sometimes make a significant difference in people’s lives.

Using animals as part of therapy, known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), can have far-reaching implications not only for teenagers but for others struggling with mental health issues Mental Health Foundation. Even in regular life, a pet can improve one’s mood and overall well-being.

Additionally, the introduction of dogs to those experiencing mental health challenges could lead to lower healthcare costs. By providing alternative therapeutic methods that don’t involve expensive medications and treatments, patients could potentially save money while improving their emotional health.

How Can You Incorporate Dog Therapy in Your Life?

Introducing the benefits of dog therapy into your own life might be easier than you think. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health concerns, consider the following options:

  1. Adopt a dog (or another pet). Bringing a pet into your home can improve your overall well-being by providing companionship, unconditional love, and a sense of responsibility. Research APA shows that people with pets tend to have lower blood pressure, heart rate, and reduced stress levels.
  2. Volunteer at an animal shelter or rescue group. Spending time with animals as a volunteer can offer many of the same emotional benefits as adopting a pet. You can enjoy the mental and emotional boost pet interaction provides, while also giving back to your community and helping animals in need.
  3. Seek professional animal-assisted therapy. If you’re already in therapy for mental health issues, ask your therapist if they offer animal-assisted therapy Psychology Today or can recommend a program in your area.
  4. Encourage the inclusion of dog therapy in local programs. Whether it’s a residential treatment center or a local counseling program, introducing the idea of dogs as a form of therapy could help improve the lives of those struggling with mental health issues.

As the research from Washington State University shows, the simple act of interacting with dogs can offer a powerful boost to a troubled teenager’s emotional well-being. By embracing this alternative therapy’s benefits, we can make mental health treatment more accessible, affordable, and effective for many.