When you think of residential addiction treatment, dogs probably aren’t the first thing to come to mind. At Stepworks, we are always looking at new ways to help our clients have the best possible treatment experience, setting them up for success once they leave our program. In the last few years we have seen the value of an unexpected element of our programming—man’s best friend. Friendly dogs are residential treatment comfort animals at some of our facilities. Why have comfort animals? Well, dogs are often attentive, comforting, and accepting animals. This can be a tremendous benefit to a client who has experienced trauma or is struggling with self-esteem from substance abuse issues.
Science Shows Benefits of Comfort Animals
According to research by UCLA Healthcare, the simple act of petting animals releases an automatic relaxation response: “Humans interacting with animals have found that petting the animal promoted the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin—all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods.” UCLA Healthcare also noted that the impact of animals in therapeutic environments contributed to physical responses including lower blood pressure and improved anxiety responses.
We are seeing similar impacts at each of our facilities as clients spend time with the furry friends that call Stepworks home.
Meet Stepworks’ Comfort Animals
“Having a dog in each of the facilities helps to create a positive environment for treatment,” says Christina Moore, a therapist at Stepworks’ Crowne Pointe, Elizabethtown location. “Clients are more cheerful, willing to engage in groups, and less anxious. It helps staff because dogs can also provide a quick stress relief to allow for better clarity and focus. Plus, it’s always nice to be greeted by a happy puppy when your day has become completely chaotic.”
“I see Rosie’s benefit in the facility all the time. She has helped clients reduce their anxieties by playing fetch with them or by letting them take her for a walk. She brings the clients excitement when she comes barreling through the facility in the morning to greet everyone. She has made groups more relaxed, because clients tend to focus on her, allowing them to process deeper and feel more calm and comfortable. I have had clients that formed a really strong connection with her. One even stated that Rosie could feel her pain. Dogs show clients love when they have felt unloved for so long.”
-Christina Moore, Stepworks therapist
Our Crowne Pointe facility isn’t the only location seeing the benefits of having comfort animals around. At Stepworks of London, KY, clients and alumni all know the ball of fur known as Biscuit. According to London therapist Maggie Colyer, Biscuit helps her therapy sessions to be more effective and intentional.
“I have to understand that there are limitations to what I can do to help a client,” says Maggie. “My effectiveness depends on the client’s ability to open up and effectively communicate what they are feeling with me. This can be really hard for a lot of our clients because they aren’t used to being able to express their emotions, especially in a safe environment without fear of judgement. I have watched Biscuit be able to sense some of the discomfort or difficult feelings that our clients are experiencing, and he has been able to provide support without the expectation of communication in return. I have seen Biscuit run to a client who is crying or has experienced a difficult phone call and lay at their feet, almost as if to say, “Hey, I’m here.””
“I think Biscuit also teaches many of the clients responsibility. They may not be used to having something totally depend on them, and seeing them come together to make sure Biscuit has eaten, had water, or been taken on a walk gives them a sense of community, purpose, and the satisfaction of having a job well done. We pride ourselves on being a family, and I think having that family pet who we all grow to love and adore really drives that point home!”
-Maggie Colyer, Stepworks therapist
Having friends like Rosie and Biscuit is just one way that we strive to bring unique elements into our programming. We are seeing our clients respond, and so we see the benefits of welcoming man’s best friend into our facilities.
Do you or someone you know need a supportive and challenging environment that can lead to sobriety? We—and our animal friends—are here to help.