June 1st 2016, By Robert Freitas, ASW — Leave a comment
Suffering from substance use and co-occurring issues was literally like walking through hell. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual effects left me broken on a very deep level. I felt isolated from others, society, and from myself. I was disconnected from all that I once loved and adored. I spiraled down into a pit of despair, self-loathing, guilt and shame. It was an experience that only those who have known addiction can truly relate to. The road to recovery was rocky in the early years with several relapses, and failed attempts at traditional 12 steps programs. Returning to the “rooms” I felt judged and humiliated. Granted some of this was in my head as many members welcomed me back with open arms. Eventually, the tools of recovery took root and I have been slowly piecing my life back together as the years roll by. Recovery has been a journey that has involved dusting off old tools, and developing new ones. As a therapist, sponsor, CEO and founder of Tailored Transitions I have had the opportunity to share my tools and create options for people that are walking through the most difficult experience of their lives.
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” – Buddhist Proverb
Before I could be a teacher, a therapist, and a recovery coach…I needed to become a student. And as the Buddhist proverb goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” There have been many teachers along the road to recovery. Part of the journey involves remaining teachable. One of my greatest teachers has been, and continues to be, the Alaskan Malamute (specifically Balou & Timber – seen above). When I felt stigmatized by friends, family, and society my Mals showed me unconditional love and acceptance. Their smiling faces were always ready to greet me at the door. They didn’t care about the mistakes I made. It was (and still is) for them – irrelevant. My process has been one of learning to channel my obsessive nature into more productive and spiritual outlets. I have grown to recognize obsession as a strength rather than a weakness, but it must be focused on things that bring joy, love, and purpose to a person’s life. In some sense, I have ex-changed one addiction for another. In a way I went from alcoholic/addict to a Malcoholic!
Pet-assisted therapy is nothing new to mental health or substance use treatment. The benefits have been well documented and it continues to be useful in hospitals, prisons, and rehabs alike. Different variations of pet therapy (i.e. equine, wolf therapy, etc.) are proving to be valuable with individuals struggling with a variety of presenting problems ranging from medical conditions to mental health disorders. Some of the benefits of pet-assisted therapy with those recovering from substance include but are not limited to:
- Increased ability to connect
- Increase in empathy
- Learning to be present (mindfulness)
- Unconditional love
- Learning to be of service (i.e. walking, feeding, grooming, etc.)
- Self-soothing effects decreasing stress/anxiety
- Increased self-esteem
- Increased attentiveness
- Increased ability to socialize
- Decrease in physical pain
- Increased sense of spirituality
- Release of endorphins
These benefits are not just useful in early recovery, but can be extremely valuable with maintaining long-term recovery and relapse prevention. They teach us accountability, uplift our spirits, prompt us to exercise, model mindfulness, show us the meaning of selfless service, and love us when we are struggling to love ourselves. They increase happiness for pet lovers. They change the way we feel without the need to put substances in our bodies. It’s a simple solution to complex problems. The commonly used cliché of “keep it simple” applies and is relevant.
I try to use the tools that have worked for me and incorporate them into treatment plans for others. I frequently ask myself, “what am I doing in my daily life that keeps me happy, joyous, and free from active addiction?” I take real life tools and apply them to clinical models to help people overcome the grips of addiction. There are applications of Malamute therapy that can be applied to live-in recovery approaches and inpatient facilities alike. Not everyone can bring a horse home with them to continue their equine therapy. Similarly, wolves (although beautiful) are not domesticated animals that can be legally brought into the home to continue wolf-therapy after inpatient treatment. Malamutes have the same majestic, free spirited temperaments while being amazing pets for those that aren’t afraid of hard work, grooming, and a lot of fur!
The Alaskan Malamutes are referred to as “gently giants,” and have unique malamute smile that can uplift a person’s mood. They are family dogs and welcome us as part of their pack. The application of malamute therapy through a live-in recovery approach can teach a person very specific tools that can be carried over after a formal treatment program. They become a part of your life and apart of your recovery.
It should be noted that Alaskan Malamutes, dogs, and pets in general are a tremendous responsibility. Pet-assisted therapy is not a standalone solution to recovery, but should be used in conjunction with a variety of therapeutic, self-help, and traditional approaches. Those in early recovery must be solidified in their recovery process and able to care for their pets or have support in doing so. Addiction is ruthless and can quickly lead to animal neglect. The idea is to not neglect yourself, your pets and/or your loved ones any longer, but rather to find things in your life to nurture and love. We get back what we put into things. If you put love and affection into your relationship with your pet (or anything else for that matter), then you will get love and acceptance in return. And love, is at the solution to many problems…including addiction and mental health!
Alaskan Malamutes (and other dogs of course) are available for rescue. For certain individuals, this is an opportunity to save another life and help save yours in the process.
Twete, R., (2015). Rockin Da Moots & Rockin Da Shirts. “Malcoholic” Image retrieved from:
Robert Freitas, MSW is the founder & CEO of Tailored Transitions and a therapist registered with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. He is graduate from the University of Southern California (USC) and holds a Master’s in Social Work with a concentration in mental health. Robert is a passionate member of the recovery community who is dedicated to supporting those struggling with addiction and co-occurring disorders through an integrated approach. He is leading the paradigm shift in treatment through his clinical coaching model which combines recovery coaching with therapeutic modalities.