The Power of Merging Animal-Assisted Therapy and Art Therapy at End of Life
“That is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me… ”
These barely audible words issued forth as weak as frail branches in autumn trying to hold the heaviness of first snowfall. Words delivered from an 84 year-old gentleman in hospice where I was doing animal-assisted therapy (AAT) merged with clinical art therapy (AT) at the request of the patient’s family.
Therapy dogs are utmost a calming and comforting agent known to mitigate the anxiety and fear surrounding death and dying. Current research and media have proven over and over the beauty and efficacy of engaging therapy animals at end of life:
- Therapy dogs provide a healthy distraction from worry and create calming effects.
- Therapy dogs minimize anxiety while adding joyfulness whether petting or merely being in the presence of the animal.
- Therapy dogs have the ability to lower a patient’s blood pressure and heart rate.
- Therapy dogs mitigate worry and provide comfort.
- Many patients are reminded of their own wonderful experiences throughout life (reminiscence) surrounding animal companions.
Most importantly the fear surrounding death mitigates and comfort is increased. Fear continues to be a major factor emotionally for both the palliative patient and surrounding family members comforting them. My working therapy animals have assisted the dying for many years now and as a team we have partaken in funerals, memorials, hospital trauma, and hospice work. As working dogs, they are foremost “emotional support” workers when assisting the dying. And the added art therapy (AT) is an effective method to process the complex emotions non verbally using art media/materials. Combining animal-assisted (AAT) therapy and art therapy (AT), both non verbal modalities, creates an intervention that is calming, comforting, and effective. And the family of the loved one has a tangible artifact or keepsake to encapsulate the experiences.
Human animal bonds are ancient – much older than words. Seeing and the image also come before words. Animal-assisted art therapy provides a synergistic combination highlighting the power of the non-verbal, presence, and relationship. Art making brings us into relationship with the unique attributes of media, with the image itself and into the present moment of making. Our animal companions and therapy animals provide the same three qualities with one added incredible dimension, unconditional love.
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is the coined phrase that is becoming more popular as the research pours into mainstream health literature and programs. I witness the healing power of animals daily with my certified and registered therapy dogs, Twillow Rose and Tala Rain. These two therapy dogs facilitate a safe haven around patients and family members that allows everyone simply to be present to all the feelings at any given moment. People are talented at masking their deeper feelings. That is not necessary with therapy dogs present. They have an incredible ability to “be with” whatever we are experiencing. Dogs will not take our sadness away and are willing to be with it as we work our way through the darker emotions.
Therapy dogs, Twillow Rose and Tala Rain, assist people both physically and psychologically. In my work as a clinical art therapist, I specialize in animal-assisted art therapy (AAT/AT). When words are not easily expressed or sometimes not even present, Twillow and Tala are incredible and professional assistants. They assist me in helping clients navigate their feelings non-verbally in a safe environment. Therapy dogs can help us with this notion whether in a group setting or individual visits. Therapy dogs, Twillow and Tala epitomize the relational heart of human animal bonds. Who can help us face the mystery and fear of dying? Animals. Animals do not demonstrate fear of mortality. In a mostly death phobic culture we need the raw presence and deep unconditional love of animals and nature.
Written by Straja Linder King
Straja Linder King, MA, ATR-BC, is a Board Certified Registered Clinical Art Therapist currently teaching at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada and holds a private practice at the Strawberry Moon Studio. Linder King is a printmaker, published poet/author and Animal-Assisted (AAT) (AAAT) © specialist. She has been designing art therapy programs, workshops and presentations both nationally and internationally for over 15 years. She holds a Master’s degree in Art Therapy and two bachelor degrees both ‘with Distinction’ in Fine Arts and Art History from the University of Calgary. Linder King has pioneered art in healing from a spiritual/nature-based perspective in Alberta, Canada and does innovative work in health sciences, special education and gerontology.