*Justin lived a life full of trauma that started when he was very young. The best way he knew to cope with his pain was to numb it with every drug possible. When he eventually landed at a rehab facility, he refused to talk about this past. He would sit with arms crossed—silent.

Until he met Duke.

The therapy dog was with his handler preparing for an upcoming group session. Justin’s sudden change in demeanor in the presence of Duke was immediately evident - it was as if the light that he swore would never come back finally began to flicker.

Justin agreed to a session with the therapy dog. It was there that he shared more information in 30 minutes than he did in months. While petting and playing with the dog, he slowly started to share the details of his horrific past. Duke allowed Justin to stroke him. He never left Justin’s side.

Finally, the doctor had the clarity she needed to be able to treat Justin and help him get his life back.

The science behind pet therapy

Research has shown that incorporating animal-assisted therapy in a group setting among adults receiving treatment for a mental health condition and substance use disorder enhances the treatment process.

Science has also shown that interaction with animals leads to hormone production that greatly affects the mind and body. Two hormones in particular, oxytocin and dopamine, are essential for our mental health and are released when around animals.

Dopamine is the “happy” hormone that drives the brain’s reward system. Using substances spikes the level of dopamine in the brain and causes a sense of euphoria. It is when the dopamine levels drop that the individual feels like they need to use the substance again.

Cycling through extreme highs and lows damages dopamine receptors and people can lose the ability to feel happiness. Through interaction with a pet, a person can raise his/her dopamine levels naturally without the aid of a substance.

How pets make a difference

Pets can be beneficial to those in recovery by helping them to regain skills that may have been lost or never developed because of the person’s addiction.

• Through interacting with a pet, a person’s problem-solving skills and communication are heightened by giving the animals commands.
• Their levels of interest and focus grow, and they further foster empathy for others.
Pets offer a consistency that some in recovery need. They are there all day, every day, needing to be fed and taken care of.
• Owning a pet instills responsibility, accountability and builds confidence to overcome addiction.
• The gratitude and unconditional love from pets is invaluable and can help those struggling maintain healthy lives in recovery.

Today, Justin is sober. He’s thriving. He’s a different person. And it all started with a beautiful yellow lab who never left his side.

*Not patient’s real name

If you or someone you know is struggling, visit American Addiction Centers online or call 1-888-444-8755.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Lawrence Weinstein was appointed chief medical officer of American Addiction Centers in August 2018. He is an accomplished physician executive with more than 20 years’ experience in managed behavioral healthcare. In addition to his extensive senior leadership background, he also delved into private practice, where he provided individual and group diagnostic psychotherapeutic services, family therapy and addiction psychiatry.