Can Man’s Best Friend Aid in Addiction Recovery?

We know the importance of a social support system in early recovery. But who says this support has to come solely from other humans? Actor Chris Klein, best known for his roles in American Pie and Election, recently told People magazine that a German shepherd – Chief – that he adopted in 2008 played an important role in his recovery from alcoholism.

“He began to recognize the behavior shift in me when [I drank] alcohol and his behavior would change,” Klein told People. “Anybody that has a meaningful relationship with a dog will understand that the disappointment that I saw in his eyes, [it was] insurmountable.”

In 2010, Klein got a second DUI – with his devoted canine pal riding in the car. Shortly afterward, he sought treatment for his drinking problem. He has been sober now for 19 months and credits his family and friends – as well as his dog – for getting him on the path to recovery. Instead of nursing a hangover, he now spends his time reprising his role in a new film American Reunion and hiking and jogging with Chief.

Klein isn’t the only recovering addict who has leaned on a canine companion for support. Some drug treatment centers use therapy dogs and other forms of animal-assisted therapy to help addicts learn the values of service, empathy, teamwork, trust, self-expression, cooperation and communication. Amid the difficult work of recovery, therapy dogs offer a nonjudgmental ear and frequent opportunities to laugh and release tension. The natural bond that develops between people and dogs can be particularly therapeutic for clients who are treatment-resistant or who have struggled opening up or making connections in past treatment programs.

Other treatment centers have caught on to the value of canine companionship, allowing patients to bring their dogs to treatment to maintain a sense of normalcy despite being away from home. Promises Malibu, one of southern California’s premier drug rehab programs, allows dogs to accompany residents of one of its residential treatment houses. People who are reluctant to enter treatment feel less anxious and more at home with their beloved dogs by their side.

In addition to the added comfort, dogs play a role in the healing process. Clients may experience lower levels of anxiety and depression, begin to experience empathy, and build a positive sense of self-worth through caring for another being. After treatment, dogs can help recovering addicts stay active, reduce stress and loneliness, and provide a sense of purpose – all of which are instrumental in preventing relapse.

A dog may not be the only factor in recovery from addiction, but as many others can attest, pets can be a powerful source of support, accountability and hope. Multiple studies have shown that pet ownership has long-term positive effects on both psychological and physical health. Given the difficult work being done in recovery, addicts are undoubtedly deserving of this type of unconditional love and support.