Animal-Assisted Therapy: Does It Work with Stuffed Animals?

Integrating live animals into the therapeutic process has been gaining recognition as a viable and effective approach in a clinical setting. Equine-assisted therapy is a widely popular form of therapy that has shown remarkable results with clients who do not respond well to other types of treatment. Similarly, children who are resistant to traditional therapies have demonstrated improvement in animal-assisted therapies. For individuals who experience disassociation, animals represent an unconditional source of love and acceptance. For people who may have experienced early life trauma, especially trauma or abuse that undermined attachment relationships, animals can replace missing secure attachment bonds.

Although animals as therapy adjuncts, even pets, can help reduce anxiety, depression, loneliness, and isolation, owning or working with an animal may not be a viable option for everyone in need. Therefore, stuffed animals, which represent a source of comfort in times of stress for young people, may serve as a suitable replacement. Rose M. Barlow of the Department of Psychology at Boise State University in Idaho wanted to see if stuffed animals would serve clients equally as well as live animals. In a recent study, Barlow surveyed a sample of high and low dissociative female college students and those with dissociative identity disorder (DID) about attachment to live and stuffed animals. She found that the DID women had significantly stronger attachments to both live and stuffed animals than any of the other women. She also found that those with high dissociation and those with DID reported higher levels of attachment to stuffed animals than live animals when compared to the low dissociative group.

The findings of this study have several important clinical implications. Even though comorbid issues such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar were not considered in this research, the evidence suggests that stuffed animals may be particularly helpful to those with high levels of dissociation. Because symptoms of dissociation, even disorganized attachment, can begin in childhood and result from emotionally unavailable parents, divorce, or abuse, integrating stuffed animals into therapy for young children can provide a sense of security and help to rebuild impaired attachment bonds. “Animals, live or stuffed, can aid therapy for both children and adults by providing a way to experience and express emotions, a feeling of unconditional support, and grounding,” Barlow said.

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