If you have pets or live with animals on the farm, you probably know that animals can be an incredible form of emotional support. Pets can have many benefits for your mental health, including increasing your physical activity, reducing anxiety through providing companionship and affection, boosting self-confidence and adding structure to your day. In rural areas where mental health services are not always plentiful, spending time with pets is one way of improving your emotional wellness. Of course, owning animals and pets comes with a host of responsibilities and can create new stressors as well. But some research suggests that people who grow up in rural areas around animals have better immune systems and fewer mental health challenges. Pets and animals aren’t going to solve mental health issues, but they can be one factor in improving mental wellness.
Therapy Dogs and Equine therapy are both gaining traction and becoming more common forms of mental health support.
Dogs are wonderfully loving and affectionate and can make great companions. Petting dogs has been shown to improve heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. And of course, dogs can help reduce loneliness and encourage us to exercise and meet new people.
A therapy dog is a dog that has been specifically trained and certified to provide emotional support. According to Companion Paws Canada, “A certified personal therapy dog (Companion Paws emotional support dog) is a trained, temperament tested, evaluated and certified dog that brings positive mental health benefits to their owners/handlers. Often a Therapy Dog is beneficial to those that struggle with mental health conditions.” A therapy dog is not the same as a service dog, and is specifically trained to provide affection and comfort. Wounded Warriors is an organization that matches PTSD service dogs with injured veterans and first responders. The benefits of service dogs for those suffering from PTSD has been shown to be profound.
Of course, you don’t need a therapy dog or a service dog to benefit from an affectionate pooch or the other animals and pets in your life.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy combines therapy and interacting with horses, such as grooming, feeding and leading a horse while being supported by a mental health professional. Equine therapy can help build emotional awareness, social skills, impulse control, confidence, problem-solving skills, trust in self and others, and empathy. Equine therapy can be used for all ages and for many different reasons, such as managing grief, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Rather than simply sitting down and talking with a therapist, equine therapy is more experiential and brings people outdoors. People process and work through their emotions while engaging with a majestic and sensitive animal. Horses are highly observant and often mirror client’s behaviours or emotions, which builds connection and understanding. For people who struggle to be vulnerable and open in a therapeutic setting, equine therapy can help people open up and process what they’re going through.
Working with horses also takes a lot of practical effort. Exercising, feeding, and grooming a horse can provide routine and a sense of purpose and structure. Caring for an animal can also help develop empathy. As people learn to work with the horse and develop greater trust and connection, they are also stepping outside of their comfort zone and learning to take more emotional risks in a healing and non-judgmental environment.
For some people, equine therapy, service dogs and therapy dogs can be incredibly helpful for their mental health. If these forms of therapy aren’t right for you or aren’t accessible in your area, that’s okay too. Simply spending time with animals and pets can be a great way of boosting your overall physical and mental wellbeing.