Animals promote healthy living in a variety of ways
By Sonam Kaloti, Arts Editor
“It has been really amazing to witness these children being able to open up to me, who is ultimately a stranger, merely because my dog is in the room.”
Therapy comes in all forms, and art-based therapy is commonly practiced in reference to psychology to promote mental and physical health. It can be used in various ways, such as (but not limited to) analytic art therapy, which focuses on transferring ideas between the client and therapist using art; psychotherapy, which focuses on a psychotherapist verbally analyzing their client’s work; and art therapy through the lens of art, where analyzing the client’s artwork is not necessarily part of the therapy, but focuses on the creation process of the art itself.
Art therapy helps the therapist understand the client’s inner feelings and thoughts through a medium, which may help the client express themselves better than they may be able to verbally. These forms of therapy help improve emotional resilience, cognitive and sensory motor function, self-awareness, and self-esteem. Art in general is a great outlet, so art therapy may also serve to reduce stress, negative emotions, and aid in resolving conflicts.
Therapy animals are typically used to help people cope with mental health disorders, or other health problems such as disease, cancer, dementia, and so on. They also help reduce pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in people suffering from health problems. Animals serve as fantastic companions, as well as potential caretakers.
According to a study done by Shiloh, Sorek, and Terkel in 2003, petting an animal reduces anxiety and produces a sense of calmness, thus, the presence of a dog in a therapy space may help reduce a client’s psychological and physiological stress. Even the San Diego Zoo has had art therapy workshops signifying the connection between animals, art, and healing.
Brant Meehan, who works at Animal Friends in Pittsburgh, leads a class for children who suffer from cancer or have loved ones who do. He utilizes animal therapy, as well as art therapy in his practice. Stephanie Samolovitch, director of support services at the Cancer Caring Center, spoke on Meehan’s program in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Samolovitch said, “Research shows that an animal provides comfort, relaxation, and an opportunity for an individual to cope with life situations. So not only are we fortunate to offer this type of therapy for children but having Brant’s expertise and empathy for these families is truly what makes it unique and so special.”
In a ResearchGate forum from 2015, a student was conducting a thesis on the therapeutic relation between an arts therapist and their clients in a children’s hospital setting, comparing the verbal and bodily responses of two groups—one with a therapy dog present, and one without. They said, “It has been really amazing to witness these children being able to open up to me, who is ultimately a stranger, merely because my dog is in the room or in some cases (due to the study parameters and the way I measured rapport) if she was in my office but the kids knew she was nearby.” This can be explained by a study done in 2006 by Prothmann, Bienert, and Ettrich, which states that observing an animal interact with a therapist in a therapeutic environment while having the animal appear to be feeling safe and comfortable indicates to the client that since the animal likes and trusts the therapist the therapist is reliable and can be trusted to keep others safe.
In an article on The Art of Autism by Amanda Ronan, Ronan lists some connections between art therapy and support animals in relation to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Ronan states that while art therapy uses techniques to promote healthy sensory regulation (such as squeezing clay and fingerpainting), support dogs can help as well—one example being the self-soothing stimulation of brushing a dog. Art helps children express themselves non-verbally, while dogs are also easy to talk to since they don’t talk back, push for answers, or judge communication styles.
While plenty of animals are shown to be incredibly intelligent and talented (take the painting elephant, for example), their impact on human health and recovery is a delightful union between species.