Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation, and almost as good for the soul as prayer. author Dean Koontz
John sat across from Alicia, with tears in his eyes, telling the painful story of his father’s rejection of him in childhood. He spent the latter part of his teen years drowning out his pain with drugs and alcohol.
“Nothing I ever did got his attention. It was as if I didn’t exist”.
At this very moment, my therapy dog, Fred, approached John and placed his head on his lap.
John responded by patting his head and smiling through his tears.
Alicia noticed. “Animals gravitate towards John.”
He nodded. He relayed that as a child his pets, a dog and a bird, were the only connection to his family. Pets have always helped soothe him.
Fred’s instinct to attend to the person in most pain is not uncommon for therapy dogs. In their quest to be a useful participant in their social group, they know when to offer up warmth and support.
The History of the Symbiotic Relationship of Dogs and Humans
It is believed that gray wolves, the closest ancestor to domesticated dogs, and humans have had a social relationship since hunter-gatherer days. Initially the relationship was built on survival and hunting for the same food supply. This dependency on one another to live is what helped create the social bond between dogs and humans.
During the 1800s, dogs became essential to life. They herded livestock, controlled vermin and protected homes. Socially dogs were used for field sports, shooting birds and companion animals.
Charles Darwin had a well-documented history as a dog lover. They sparked his interest and affected his studies. He noted biological traits that dogs and humans shared (and we now can confirm that we share 84% of our DNA with dogs), and that impacted his study of evolution. His book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, is still relevant today. Current research is illuminating that animals are capable of reflection, bliss, grief and mental illness.
Sigmund Freud often had his Chow Chow, Jofi, in his psychoanalysis sessions. He noticed that people seemed to talk more openly with the dog present, especially children and adolescents. Present day studies show that Freud was correct. Dogs do indeed help reduce blood pressure and have been shown to be beneficial with autism, PTSD and addiction.
The first true service animal was Buddy, the Seeing Eye Dog. But Guide Dogs for the blind are just one example of how animals can be of service. Dogs can be trained for medical detection purposes, such as sensing when a human’s blood sugar is too low or an epileptic seizure is about to take place.
Today, dogs are the most common companion animals, with 38% of households having one or more dogs. They are part of our social group and our family. We allow them into our hearts and our homes . . . and even into our beds. A recent study on women’s sleep quality and pet ownership showed that dogs offer a sense of comfort and security when they share a bed with us.
Simply put, dog lovers cannot imagine their life without a dog in it.
Are Dogs Good Therapists?
A meta-analysis by Dr. Helen Louise Brooks from the University of Liverpool found that animals can benefit people with mental health issues. Pets give stability, continuity and meaning to one’s life. They help manage human emotions and provide distraction from mental health issues. Their unconditional love and support ease feelings of worry, distress and loneliness. Their need for physical activity encourages connection with the outside world, as well as social interaction.
The downside to pet ownership regarding mental health is that it can be negatively impacted by intense grief when they die. But as Alfred Lord Tennyson said, ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.
Each and every one of my dogs was special and served as a personal therapist, but most would not pass muster in a counseling office.
Pete, our energetic Australian Shepherd, is smart, loyal and protective of our home. But he barks a bit too much and startles too easily.
Minnie, our beloved greyhound, was graceful, gentle and had the most soulful eyes. She was also aloof and anxious, eventually ending up on anti-anxiety medication. I believe her early days at the racetrack were traumatic and left emotional scars we could not heal.
To be a good therapy dog, they must have many (not all) traits that would be welcome in a therapy session. The list includes friendly, patient, obedient, few vocalizations, gentle, ease in all situations, exhibits calm with distractions, enjoys human contact, likes being handled/petted, good manners and clean.
Enter Fred, our 2-year old labradoodle. He literally checks every box and as an added bonus is non-shedding. Seriously, he is an amazing pet and it was love at first sight. It baffles me how someone could have relinquished him to a shelter.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Fred was well-behaved when he arrived, but we proceeded with basic training for good measure. Unbeknownst to us, the trainer we hired had trained many therapy dogs for local elementary schools. She saw Fred’s special qualities and eagerness to please, and suggested additional training.
There are no regulations or laws governing the term “therapy dog”. A licensed mental health clinician can choose to have a dog present in session, but at a minimum it is a good idea that the dog meets criteria to be an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen. From there, the therapist uses the methodology within their scope of practice and the dog augments the interventions.
Options for registering a dog as a therapy animal include Therapy Dogs International and Pet Partners. Additional trainings and certificate courses are available for therapists to learn how to best utilize animals in therapy.
So, what exactly does a therapy dog do?
The average dog has an IQ equivalent to a 2-year child, and a very smart dog about a 3-year old. And while IQ is important for training purposes, it is a dog’s social intelligence that makes them a good therapy animal.
First and foremost, dogs are social beings, so they will greet you warmly and accept you as you are. They don’t judge your looks, your flaws, your socioeconomic status or messy emotions. Unconditional positive regard is a hallmark of a good therapist.
The mere presence of a friendly dog can serve as an icebreaker. Client fears can be eased and small talk about the animal can be a great segue to rapport building
Therapy dogs will gravitate towards people in pain. Their feedback is immediate. Just like in my session with John and Alicia, when emotional mood shifts, the dog will be more attentive. Fred often will take a nap near a client’s feet, as if to say “I am sticking close by, just in case you need me.”
Animals boost levels of oxytocin, also dubbed the cuddle hormone. When you run your fingers through a dog’s fur, pat their head, look into their eyes or smell their puppy breath, your body can react to the interaction by reducing stress and blood pressure. Oxytocin’s powerful affects help a mom bond with her baby during breastfeeding, generates feelings of closeness in couples through touch and orgasm, and promotes general feelings of well-being when we are in positive interactions with others. And who doesn’t want more of that?
Therapy dogs can also serve as bridge with difficult conversations. As a couple’s therapist I often see partners struggling to communicate painful feelings with one another. An attentive dog that looks you in the eye and tilts his head, as if he’s really trying to understand your words, creates a sense of safety. Partners can practice their words on the dog before looking their partners in the eye. This can be powerful.
Sometimes feelings get heightened in the therapy sessions, causing one to feel overwhelmed or emotionally flooded. In these instances, hearts race and breathing becomes shallow. By modeling the calm and steady breathing of a dog, either by watching their chest slowly rise and fall with each breath, or by placing your hand on the animal to feel it, a client can begin to self-soothe. Once calm, therapy can resume.
Ultimately, what happens in the therapy session is a result of the therapist and client interaction. Skilled therapists can help move clients toward better functioning with or without a therapy dog in the room. However, for dog loving therapists and clients, the gentle presence of a therapy is dog is the cherry on top.
For more information, check out Your Dog Advisor’s great article Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs: What Are They and Why Are They Important