The dog is known as the best friend of man. Now psychiatrists agree warmly. More and more of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and other therapists are keeping dogs by their side during the counselling sessions. And it seems to work.
Already there are therapy dogs which visit patients at hospitals and nursing homes, and now as "canine therapy-assistants," they get to know the patients just as well as the doctors.
AdvertisementEven some medical doctors have put their pups to work. Lacey, part golden retriever, part spaniel, entertains waiting patients at New York plastic surgeon Janis Di Pietro's office, though she isn't allowed in the procedure room.
Lola and Wolfie, mutts aged three and 17, put elderly patients at ease for New York neurologist Gayatri Devi, who specializes in memory disorders. "Coming to this office can be unnerving for dementia patients, but when they see a dog, it's disarming. They feel comforted and safe," she says.
Research shows that a few minutes of stroking a pet dog decreases cortisol, the stress hormone, in both the human and the dog. It also increases prolactin and oxytocin, hormones that govern nurturing and security, as well as serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that boost mood. One study found that five minutes with a dog was as relaxing as a 20-minute break for hospital staffers, writes Melinda Beck in Wall Street Journal.
"It's chemical, not magical," says Rebecca Johnson, who teaches a popular course in animal-human interaction at the University of Missouri and has conducted much of the research
Interacting with a dog can work wonders for some patients. Early in his practice, child psychologist Aubrey Fine treated a 9-year-old girl who was painfully withdrawn and refused to speak until his golden retriever, Puppy, laid her head in the girl's lap. The girl slowly began patting Puppy, smiled and spoke to her as her astonished parents looked on.
For the past 30 years, Dr. Fine, who practices in Claremont, Calif., has used dogs and other animals to help treat children disorders such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Learning to walk and interact with the pets helps the kids learn to maintain focus, eye contact and communication. "With some children, I use the dog as an external form of biofeedback," to help them learn to regulate their behavior, says Dr. Fine, who edited the "Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy," a key textbook in the field. Some therapists report that their dogs act differently with different patients, depending on their conditions.
"I call them 'seeing heart dogs'—because they can see into people's hearts," says Lois Abrams, a marriage and family therapist in Los Alamitos, Calif., who practices with her two cavalier King Charles spaniels, Duke, 11, and Romeo, eight. Duke lies on the floor next to patients with anxiety disorders and sits on the couch close to those who are depressed.
Experts speculate that people give off tell-tale scents under certain physical or psychological conditions that only dogs can detect.
That acute sense of smell also enables specially trained service dogs to recognize when seizures, diabetic comas or heart attacks are imminent in humans. Some dogs can even detect the presence of cancer cells in lab specimens—much like detecting traces of contraband or explosives in luggage.
Anita Sacks, an assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University's Langone Medical Center, "prescribes" dogs for some patients. From a psychoanalytic perspective, dogs offer the kind of unconditional love that some people didn't get from their mothers, which sets them up for life-long attachment problems, says Ms. Sacks, who practices with her chocolate lab, Deacon.
As a rule, dogs are better suited to therapy than other animals. "Cats like relationships on their own terms," says Dr. Johnson, who is president of the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations, a nonprofit working to advance the nascent science of understanding between humans and animals. But other animals can serve other roles.
Besides golden retrievers and black labs, Dr. Fine has worked with guinea pigs, bunnies, birds and bearded lizards. He recalls one lizard that had a severed tail and chronic constipation, which helped some children relate to her even more closely. "She was one of the nicest lizards I have ever met," he says.
Animal-assisted therapy is still in its infancy. But research is expanding and interest is growing steadily. Some universities now offer undergraduate courses. VCU's School of Medicine offers a course in human-animal interaction for fourth-year medical students and another for psychiatry residents.
"When you have psychiatrists who say, 'I want to leave my practice and come and work with you,' you know it's an area of great interest," says Dr. Barker.
Animal-assisted therapy is designed to improve the physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning of the patient, as well as provide educational and motivational effectiveness for participants. AAT can be provided on an individual or group basis. During AAT, therapists document records and evaluate the participant's progress.
Many kinds of animals are used in therapy, including dogs, cats, elephants, birds, dolphins, rabbits, lizards, llamas, and other small animals. Such animals are often referred to as comfort animals. AAT with horses is known specifically as equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), equine-assisted creative living (EACL), equine-assisted personal development (EAPD) or hippotherapy.
Closer home, there is this Animal Angels Foundation, a Mumbai-based organization run by Rohini Fernandes and Radhika Nair who are clinical psychologists, certified practitioners of animal-assisted therapy and professional dog trainers.
They say, "Through this therapy, our specially trained therapy pets assist us in helping children and adults learn or improve various skills and in speeding up the recovery process. We practice animal-assisted therapy in the areas of developmental disorders, psychiatric disorders, physical disabilities, physical illnesses and behavioural/emotional problems.
We also work with kindergartens and schools where our therapy pets assist in educating children on how to interact with animals. "