The Presence of a Therapy Dog in Eating Disorder Recovery

Written by: Kay Pey  

Recovering from an eating disorder is something that is challenging and complex and often involves many steps that help a person heal mentally, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Whilst a lot of emphasis is often placed on an individual’s ‘weight’ this is not the core problem. By nature, eating disorders can be isolating and often cause a barrier between the sufferer and their loved ones. Individuals who are then admitted to an inpatient facility for treatment are often separated from their family, friends and pets and experience a heightened sense of loneliness. There is no questioning how difficult the road to recovery can be for those struggling with an eating disorder but one thing that can provide a positive distraction and emotional experience is the presence of a therapy dog. 

Milo is one of Canine Assisted Learning’s many therapy dogs that works with a number of eating disorder patients within a hospital setting and has shown to be a helpful asset in the therapeutic process of recovery. While every patient’s experience is unique, there are several scenarios in which Milo’s presence can help the individual improve, often through goal-directed interventions. Working alongside a therapist to implement these Animal Assisted Interventions provides the patient the opportunity to work through their difficulties in a non-threatening, supportive space. Some examples of these are:

Improving mood and reducing anxiety:

One of the most important aspects of Milo’s presence is that he helps create a positive therapeutic experience for the individual. Helping to focus on the here-and-now can support the individual to take time out of their own mind that will often have ruminating thoughts which can lead to more anxiety and feelings of depression.

Learning to be self-nurturing:

When individuals take time to learn about Milo’s needs and ways to help him, they become more aware of their own need to be self-nurturing. Eating disorders often take the focus away from self-care and it helps to be reminded that we all have a right to be cared for.

Experiencing therapeutic trust:

It is often difficult for a young person to open up and trust the therapist that they are working with. The opportunity to spend time interacting with Milo and creating a relationship often enables a conversation with the therapist. The individual learns to trust their therapist because they trust Milo.

Overcoming fear:

Some of the work Milo does is to support the individual when facing their fears. There are often a number of these, but a particular one can be eating certain ‘fear’ foods. Milo’s non-judgemental presence, and his ability to distract the individual from their negative associated thoughts, has enabled many young people to think about/hold/eat foods they never thought they’d be able to attempt. Overcoming these fears in small graded steps can help the individual overcome fears about their overall treatment. 

A few comments from the patients Milo works with have said…

“Knowing I get to see Milo once a week keeps me going and I get a break from my eating disorder for the time I am with him”

“I was able to eat one of my biggest fear foods with Milo by my side. It made me laugh that he looked as though he wanted it for himself”

“Milo doesn’t care about my weight or how I look. He loves me for me”

“I felt I could open up to the therapist with Milo in the room. He made me feel calm and safe”