Shelters all over the world have seen a rise in animal adoptions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Why? This article outlines some of the reasons: emotional support, the need for touch and the desire to care for another creature. All of these are especially valuable when we’re in isolation. Interacting with an animal can help with anxiety, lowering your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels while increasing your feel-good dopamine.

The TheraTails Program, supported by Third Point Re and run jointly by Seaglass Clinical Consulting and the Bermuda SPCA, builds on these benefits by incorporating animals into psychotherapy. We’ve seen, at first-hand, the therapeutic power of working with animals.

We combine clinical expertise with behavioural knowledge in a multidisciplinary team approach. A clinical psychologist and an animal specialist are both present throughout each session. As well as animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP), which takes place with the dogs and cats, rabbits and rodents of the SPCA shelter, we also practice the international gold standard for Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), the Eagala model, with our certified Eagala practitioner (read about our experiences at a recent conference here). As we use shelter animals, we can tap in to narratives of loss, abandonment, re-parenting and reparation with our clients.

What does a session look like? First of all, our clinical psychologist performs the triage and assessment in-office, and will explain to the client exactly what to expect. We then move to the shelter. The client is introduced to our co-therapist and asked to choose an animal or animals to work with – this often brings up the interesting discussions. Depending on the client’s needs, we then work with the animals actively or more mindfully.

For the more active therapies, socialising or training animals, the client experiences a sense of agency, an immediacy of connection and the buzz of collaborative achievement. In other, quieter sessions the focus is on the animal and our observations; we are all in the present, using the safe space for reflection or simply silent acceptance.

The Eagala sessions with our therapy horse are a paradox; while they sometimes seem calm and uneventful, there is a lot going on under the surface. During the Eagala sessions the team and the client have had insights that many sessions of more conventional therapy have failed to elicit; it is very a powerful catalyst.

If you would like to learn about the process in more detail, and have a look at our qualifications and training, please see our TheraTails brochure here. Now, we also have a TheraTails Instagram where we offer snapshots of how and why AAP and EAP work; and what it might feel like to experience a session. 

Due to the current situation we have now started to use a telehealth approach, offering an approximate experience of being with animals however we can. We have just run our first tele-AAP sessions and have some creative ideas gleaned from our Eagala Network for the EAP. Contact us to find out more.

How about you and your pet, right now, at home? Well, there has been some interesting research about the ‘mirroring’ function of animal companions, and how closely they are identified with the self. This means that when you stroke, soothe and comfort an anxious animal, you are nurturing part of yourself. It is a cycle: as the animal relaxes, you too will experience a shift in your internal state. Being with your animal companion is an effective first step in managing and overcoming your anxiety.