When it comes to animals, dogs have held a special place in the hearts of humans for thousands of years. Furry bundles of energy and cuteness, they’re known for their exceptional loyalty, high level of intelligence, keen sense about people, and unconditional love. These are just a few of the traits that make dogs a popular choice for animal-assisted therapy.
The use of animals for therapeutic purposes dates back thousands of years. The coining of the term “pet therapy”, however, is attributed to Dr. Boris Levinson. Dr. Levinson discovered how well children responded to dogs back in the 1950s, when he was treating an autistic child who’s ability to communicate was quite limited. When his dog Jingles came in to the room, however, he noticed it was much easier to engage the child.
Dogs often have a calming presence, particularly with children. However, their relaxing impact can benefit adolescents, adults, and seniors as well. Dogs have been used in nursing homes, veterans’ hospitals, psychiatric wards, mental health clinics, private therapist’s offices, and other settings to help facilitate the emotional and physical healing of patients.
Many people find that they can connect much more easily with an animal than a human. Stroking an animal has been shown to lower blood pressure and trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural mood-enhancing chemicals. The use of dogs in therapy can help patients feel less anxious and more optimistic, enhancing the development of trust and rapport with the therapist. Individuals who have a difficult time accessing or expressing their emotions often find it easier to open up in the presence of a friendly, unconditionally accepting, and non-judgmental canine.
Therapeutic Benefits of Canine-Assisted Therapy
There are a variety of ways in which therapists can use dogs to facilitate the treatment process. Dogs make the ideal “co-therapist” in many situations.
The presence of a dog can help therapy clients tap into and express blocked, difficult, and painful thoughts and emotions. Many individuals – particularly those with a history of abuse – find it difficult to open up to a therapist. However, the soothing presence of a friendly dog can make them feel more comfortable letting their guard down. Rather than talking directly to the therapist, they can talk to the dog as a trusted, fully accepting confidant or close friend. For some, this may be the first time they’ve ever felt “heard” without the risk of judgment or rejection.
Therapists can use therapy dogs to model healthy social interactions. Clients can observe how the therapist interacts with the dog, and how the dog responds in turn. Clients can then practice appropriate behavior in the session. Dogs give immediate feedback, so if the dog isn’t responding favorably (e.g. if the client is being a bit too aggressive or the dog senses hostility) this can be a powerful teaching tool. In many ways, dogs are very similar to humans. They respond positively to kind, gentle, calm behavior, but react unfavorably to harshness, fear, hostility, and aggression. Canine-assisted therapy is an ideal tool to help children and adolescents – and even adults – understand how their attitudes and behaviors impact those around them.
Therapists can use the interactions between their clients and the therapy dog as a springboard for discussion, as well as to gain valuable insight into the client. For example, if a client perceives that the dog is guarded or distant, the therapist can ask the client about other situations or relationships in his or her life that may be similar. Also, if a client finds it very difficult to trust people, but feels safe with the animal, this can open up dialogue about painful interactions that have left deep emotional wounds. Bringing these issues to the forefront is an important step in the healing process.
Canine-assisted therapy brings the power of touch and affection into the therapy setting. As a general rule, therapists need to maintain strict boundaries when it comes to touching their clients. For example, a quick hug, touch of the hand, or pat on the shoulder can easily be misconstrued by an emotionally needy or hypersexual client. It can also feel extremely uncomfortable to someone who’s been sexually or physically abused. However, petting a dog and receiving the dog’s affection in return allows the appropriate expression and reciprocity of affection that therapists can’t provide. For someone who feels socially isolated and disconnected, this can help facilitate emotional healing.
As mentioned above, dogs provide a particularly soothing presence. This is especially beneficial for therapists working with highly anxious or emotionally charged clients. When clients feel calmer and more relaxed, they are more open and receptive to the therapy process. This, in turn, can help reduce the amount of time they need to be in therapy.
Dogs accept people just as they are. They don’t care if a person is divorced, had an affair, or is recovering from an addiction. They don’t care if a person is overweight, unattractive, or has a physical deformity. They don’t care if this is the person’s fourth attempt at treatment, or that he or she has bipolar disorder, social anxiety, depression, or even multiple diagnoses. They don’t care if a person is wealthy or struggling financially. This unconditional acceptance is perhaps one of the most powerful healing benefits of using canines and other animals in a therapeutic setting.
Other potential benefits of canine-assisted therapy include (but aren’t limited to):
- Increase in focus and attention
- Decrease in impulsivity
- Enhanced self-esteem
- Improved sense of personal responsibility
- Reduction in anger and hostility
- Greater communication skills
- Increase in compassion and empathy
- Enhanced recovery from trauma
- Help with unresolved grief and loss
- Reduction of depression
- Increased insight
- Greater sense of optimism
- Increase in problem-solving abilities
- Better coping skills
- Stress reduction
- Increased motivation
- Mental stimulation
- Increased ability to love and care for others
- Improved social skills
- Increased sense of personal empowerment
- Lower cortisol levels (the hormone associated with stress)
- Pain reduction
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduction in heart rate
- Improved cholesterol levels
- Release of oxytocin (the hormone associated with feelings of love)
- Cardiovascular benefits
Potential Disadvantages of Canine-Assisted Therapy
While the use of dogs in a therapeutic setting can be powerful and extremely beneficial, there are some potential drawbacks and caveats that always need to be considered.
Some individuals are terrified of dogs. Although many children and adults feel less anxious and more relaxed in the presence of a therapy dog, the opposite can occur for those who have a phobia of dogs or who’ve had a traumatic experience with a dog. This doesn’t mean that the use of a therapy dog can’t be considered down the road, for example as part of exposure therapy to help someone recover from a phobia or past trauma. But that should occur only when the client is ready and has the appropriate coping skills in place.
Some people are allergic to dogs or have a medical condition (e.g. a compromised immune system) that prohibits them from being in close proximity with all dogs. If allergies are minimal it may not be a problem. Any serious health issues should be cleared by the person’s physician before participating in canine-assisted therapy.
Some individuals have a strong dislike for dogs (or animals in general), or have a history of abusing animals. The safety and wellbeing of the animal is just as important as the safety of the client. Canine-assisted therapy may not be appropriate for these individuals. It also may not be appropriate for individuals who are actively psychotic, severely mentally ill, extremely hostile, or physically aggressive.
Interactions between patients and therapy dogs should always be closely monitored.
Disorders, Issues, and Conditions Canine-Assisted Therapy Can Help
The use of dogs as part of therapy and other forms of treatment can be beneficial for a wide range of disorders, issues, and conditions. They include:
- Attachment issues
- Recovery from addiction
- Anxiety disorders
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Behavioral problems
- Autistic spectrum disorders
- Developmental disorders
- Social skill deficits
- Psychotic disorders
- Low self-esteem
- Social isolation
- Eating disorders
Connecting with a dog can be powerfully healing and comforting for individuals of all ages and walks of life. In some cases, it can help an otherwise “stuck” patient overcome hurdles in treatment and begin making progress again. The friendly, accepting nature of these beautiful animals makes them ideal “co-therapists”. Canine-assisted therapy has been around for several decades, and will continue to be used for years to come due to its many benefits.