Helping at-risk youth overcome trauma and substance abuse through animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy is a goal-oriented adjunct to traditional therapy programs. This type of therapy has benefitted many populations, including children, adolescents, and adults, in their recovery from a wide variety of physical and psychological traumas. Examples include patients who are undergoing rehabilitation related to major surgery, serious illness, or debilitating injury and patients who are receiving treatment to overcome substance abuse, physical abuse, and behavioral problems. The purpose of this article is to show how animal-assisted therapy has been used with at-risk youths who participate in a treatment program for a variety of traumatic experiences, including abuse and neglect, as well as criminality and substance abuse. In the therapy program, the youths work through a structured, goal-oriented curriculum with certified therapy dogs and volunteer handlers. Together they complete progressively advanced tasks in which the youths transfer skills learned about dog handling to understanding and modifying their own behavior. The overall aim is to help the youths develop positive life skills and facilitate positive social interactions to help break the cycle of crime, violence, or substance abuse.

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