The Therapeutic Magic of Animals
Have you ever tried to frown while petting a kitten? Or perhaps you have attempted the impossible task of remaining angry while playing with your dog?

The positive correlation between animals and mental health is undeniable. We all know animals can help us generally feel better. What we may not realize is that for youth with emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression, animals can be an extremely effective therapeutic tool, creating relief where it was previously elusive, and forging progress toward recovery and happiness.
Side by Side’s Community Counseling team has consistently advocated for emotional support animals on behalf of our young clients. Clinicians send letters to their clients’ housing managers with information about the American Disability Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which exempts people with a prescription for an emotional support animal from landlords’ pet bans. The letters also include the client’s diagnosis and why an emotional support animal would help them.
The result? Numerous youth struggling with mental health challenges are getting better thanks to their new pets. “It’s been life changing,” says Community Counseling clinician Hilda Leon. 

Leon recalls one client who was extremely shut down when she first began sessions. “When I first met her, she was failing all of her high school classes, she did not speak and was hiding inside her hoodie,” says Leon. Fortunately, by connecting with this youth, Leon learned that she loves animals. “We were able to obtain authorization for her to adopt a poodle mix, and she has had a complete turnaround. This teen went from being withdrawn and mute to engaged and talkative in less than 7 months! Her dad reports that she is a completely different kid and says that he is forever grateful.”

Dozens of studies around animals and mental health show that petting and playing with animals reduces stress-related hormones, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and increases the release of oxytocin, a chemical in the body that reduces stress naturally. These benefits can occur after just five minutes of interacting with an animal.
“Animals are everything!” says TAY Space Clinical Supervisor and Case Manager Erica Antonio. “They are so healing.” Transitional age youth served by Side by Side’s TAY Space program have often lived with years of trauma and neglect. “They have so much anxiety along with their depression and have a lot of trouble talking to people,” she says. “But they can talk to animals, and animals decrease their anxiety.”
Antonio adds “I have one client who would simply pet bunnies during our sessions and relax more as a result.” TAY Space has successfully advocated to get numerous emotional support animals approved for transitional age youth in supported housing.

Side by Side’s Hunt School has also embraced the healing power of animals. Over 25 years ago, volunteer Candy Wilson began bringing her dog to the Hunt School campus through a Marin Humane Share program. “My dog was a little bit rambunctious which was perfect because so were the kids! Showing them how to have the dog settle down and how to be gentle was huge,” she says.
Wilson believes that learning about how to treat dogs helped students understand that you don’t punish behavior that you don’t want. “Instead, you gently work around to the right behavior. This profound analogy has stuck with me all these years,” she says. “I am so grateful for the experience. I found that kids can say things to the animals that they may not say to people. I saw the students opening up and what a difference it was making. It was an honor to be part of that.”

Hunt School Director Jolene Yee says that although the Share program has gone temporarily on hiatus due to COVID, there is currently a lap dog on campus that students can bring with them into their sessions. “They open up to therapeutic intervention when the dog is in the room,” she says. Yee says that she is hopeful they will be able to reinstate the Marin Humane Share program in the new year.

Antonio also notes that because pets live in the moment, they don’t worry about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. “Pets can help troubled youth enjoy and appreciate the present moment and help them remember how to be playful and carefree.” Appreciating the present and finding the joy in each moment is a lesson we can all take to heart. 
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