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Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy to Treat Personality Disorders

Animal-assisted psychotherapy for people with borderline personality disorder.

Key points

  • 1. Animal-assisted psychotherapists engage animals in the treatment process.
  • 2. Animal-assisted therapy can promote feelings of attachment.
  • 3. Interaction with animals can increase oxytocin, a crucial hormone in social bonding and trust.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is characterized by rejection sensitivity, emotional instability, and an unstable sense of self. These symptoms usually arise in adolescence or early adulthood and often derive from adverse childhood experiences. People with BPD often experience abandonment fears that are deeply ingrained and can lead to emotional dysregulation, unsatisfying social relationships, and impulsive, self-destructive behaviors. As a result, they may struggle to engage in conventional psychotherapy.

Traditional forms of treatment, including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and schema therapy, effectively treat BPD. However, some people may require additional tools to aid recovery. One adjunct intervention is animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP), which incorporates animals into the therapeutic process.

Understanding Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy

Animal-assisted psychotherapists engage animals in the treatment process to promote clients’ emotional, cognitive, and social development. Therapy animals can provide clients with a sense of safety, comfort, and non-judgmental support, which can help individuals feel more at ease in the treatment setting. AAP has been shown to benefit clients with a wide range of mental health conditions, including posttraumatic stress, major depression, and substance use disorder.

Crucially, it has been found to increase the strength of the therapeutic alliance early in treatment and reduce premature treatment termination, which is vital for people who have difficulty establishing and maintaining emotional connections with others. Incorporating a therapy dog into the sessions can offer the safety, solace, and alleviation of distress required by clients with BPD. The animal can act as an attachment figure, especially during the initial stages of therapy.

Animals included in AAP are carefully selected and trained to ensure they possess the appropriate temperament, behavior, and skills to support the therapeutic process. Therapy animals range from dogs and cats to horses and other farm animals, depending on the client's specific needs and preferences. However, dogs are the most commonly engaged animals in AAP due to their biddability or tendency to accept human leadership and prioritize human companionship.

How Animals Can Enhance Attachment and Trust in Therapy

One of the core benefits of animal-assisted psychotherapy is its ability to enhance attachment and trust between the individual and their therapist. Animals' non-verbal communication and empathy can help individuals feel understood and valued without fear of rejection or criticism.

Animals can also serve as a bridge between the individual and their therapist, helping to build rapport and trust. As individuals interact with the therapy animal, they may begin to project their feelings and experiences onto the animal, which can create opportunities for the therapist to explore and address these emotions. Additionally, animals can help individuals practice empathy and compassion, which are vital in building and maintaining healthy relationships.

Scientific Support

Research on animal-assisted psychotherapy for people with BPD is promising, but still in its early stages. For example, Compitus (2019) found that combining animal-assisted therapy with traditional DBT skills training aids the recovery of people with BPD, noting that animals offer unconditional acceptance and a sense of safety that is highly appealing to people with BPD.

Similarly, Kim (2019) found that canine-assisted therapy facilitates trust in people with BPD and can be successfully integrated with other forms of psychotherapy to help clients establish a secure therapeutic alliance.

Earlier research has shown that interacting with animals can increase levels of oxytocin, a crucial hormone in social bonding and attachment. This suggests that animal-assisted psychotherapy may particularly benefit individuals, such as those with BPD, who struggle to form trusting relationships.

Critical Principles

Animal-assisted psychotherapy adheres to several fundamental principles that support the therapeutic process. These include:

  • Subjective sense of safety: Ensuring the client and therapy animal feel safe during sessions is vital for building trust and promoting a positive therapeutic experience.
  • Non-judgmental support: Therapy animals provide unconditional love and acceptance when feeling safe and relaxed. Their warm presence may encourage clients to express themselves without fear of judgment or criticism.
  • Empathy and connection: Domesticated dogs and horses, especially, can innately sense and respond to human emotions, which may help individuals feel understood, validated, and connected during therapy.
  • Responsibility and accountability: Caring for, interacting with, and leading a therapy animal can help clients deepen their emotional connections, which can help them establish healthy human relationships.
  • Growth and change: Building trust with therapy animals can provide personal growth, self-reflection, and change opportunities. This process can help break the cycle of unstable interpersonal connections and emotional instability that is characteristic of BPD.

Finding a Provider

When searching for a provider, it's essential to ensure they have experience working with people diagnosed with BPD and are appropriately trained to provide animal-assisted psychotherapy. The Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals has established an examination-based certification for interdisciplinary animal-assisted healthcare providers. Additionally, you can ask your current therapist or mental health provider for recommendations or referrals in your area.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Directory.


Compitus, K. (2019). Animal-assisted therapy as an adjunctive modality to CBT in the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Journal of Depression and Anxiety, 8, 47.

Kim, S. J. (2019). Canine-assisted therapy for borderline personality disorder [Doctoral dissertation, Alliant International University]. Proquest.

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