The following is the introduction to my master’s thesis entitled Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy: An Emerging Field.
By Susan M Taylor, MACP, LADC
People who enjoy affiliation with animals have noticed a healing bond which can develop between humans and other species. The work of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has emerged from those observations. Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) is a type of AAT which is developing in terms of theory, practice, and research. As with any developing field, the literature on practice is greater than on research and theory. This paper reviews the literature in these areas and explores the future of the work.
Animal Assisted Therapy aims to promote well-being and improvement in quality of life for people. Some see the animal as a therapeutic tool (Iannuzzi & Rowan, 1991). Others work in partnership with the animal as a colleague who can mirror the client’s experiences (Rector, 2001). The initial emphasis in AAT was people’s relationships with their pets and the ways in which change was facilitated. A more recent shift has changed the emphasis wherein now “animals have found a place in various therapeutic situations” (Mallon, 1992, pp. 53-54). In addition to their value as pets, the presence of animals is considered to be “therapeutic” in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, nursing homes, treatment centers, private practice, and business corporations.
There are a variety of reasons why AAT was developed. Dyer (2000), in her work with horses and children, suggests that through the development of a safe relationship, children can examine “another species … to grow in human life interaction” (p. 11). Levinson (1978) believes that many children are stilted in their development because of a lack of parental love or parents’ inability to demonstrate love and affection, and animal companions will extend and demonstrate love without restraint: “Though not fully a substitute for loving parents, a pet can provide some of the opportunities for overtly giving and receiving affection which a child needs for adequate growth and personality development” (Levinson, 1978, p. 1035). Leimer (1997) discusses the double-bind that children are placed in because of human verbal communication. She believes that animals are direct and honest whereas humans change the rules and confuse through verbal communication.
AAT was also developed to work with abused children. Children who have been abused and neglected are at risk for developing severe emotional disorders. They can exhibit a host of psychosocial difficulties which may be carried into adulthood. These problems can be devastating to the children, their families, friends, school, and wider communities. Because of the far-reaching effects of these problems, “there is a powerful rationale to use whatever works in treating the bio psychosocial problems of these youth” (Pearson, 1997, p. 181).
There is a history of utilizing animals in treatment. A home in Bethel, Germany (which currently has more than 5,000 patients) began in 1867 as a center for the treatment of epilepsy. Animals were part of the initial treatment regime and remain an integral part of the center today. In 1940, Pawling Air Force Convalescent Hospital in Pawling, New York established a program for veterans to work with animals as part of their recovery process from emotional and physical war wounds. The work took place in the woods adjacent to the Hospital and on the Hospital farm (Netting et al., 1987).
Anecdotal therapy literature also repeatedly describes therapists “accidentally” discovering the fit between patients and animals (Corson & Corson, 1979; Levinson, 1962; Rector, 2001). These passionate feelings and observations have challenged many to bring the work with animals to the therapy field.
However, there is a need for research. Mental health practitioners and animal lovers who are attempting to introduce animals as co-therapists and facilitators of therapy are in need of evidence of efficacy. Individuals and the industry which pays for psychotherapy (i.e. insurance companies, schools, hospitals, etc.) want clear measurement of change which is global and long-lasting. Observations of seemingly positive emotional interaction between accepting, loving animals and people who are seeking therapy have been held forth as proof of the efficacy of AAT. The field has been slow in gaining recognition because of this litmus. A response of emotionality is not sufficient evidence of integrated change. There is a need for well-documented, published research to test the assumptions upon which the field is currently operating.
In this paper I will discuss the current status of research in AAT as well as cite the anecdotal evidence which is being heavily relied upon to justify continuation of the work. I take the position that the mental health professionals’ refusal to see this as a form of legitimate treatment contributes to a continuing lack of research. A section describing the beginnings of the work and its present format is included to illustrate the therapeutic promise for practice. I will conclude with ideas for future research, a section on ethical issues as they relate to establishment of the discipline, and suggestions for individuals and organizations who are interested in becoming involved in EFP. SUSAN.M.TAYLOR. MACP.LADC