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Amy Johnson Oct 28, 2009

Pets in practice: Can they really be co-therapists?

For the 74.8 million dog owners and 88.3 million cat owners in the United States1, the loyalty and love we receive from our pets contributes to lower blood pressure, lower heart rates and decreases in anxiety and stress levels in us. For me, I know that regardless of the frustrations I’ve experienced during the day, watching my three lap dogs round the corner, bounce and twirl to greet me at the door quickly brightens my mood. And days when I could really use a hug, my four-legged children are always happy to oblige. But in a clinical practice setting, could dogs (cats, horses, pocket pets, etc.) bring about those same physiological changes in our clients?

Last week, I spent four days with over 300 practitioners of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) from around the world at the Human-Animal Interaction Impacting Multiple Species Conference in Kansas City which was hosted by the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri and the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ)2.

The practitioners ranged from world renowned psychologists, counselors, nurses, teachers and university faculty to the canine clinicians who donned their vests and showcased their talents. Pioneers in the field of Animal Assisted Therapy shared countless hours of quantitative and qualitative data that underscored the effectiveness of using animal assisted therapy as an adjunct to traditional treatment. A cartoon shown by one of the speakers depicted a dog, acting as a therapist, sitting in a chair as his “client” lay on the couch before him. The dog shared his theoretical foundation, “My form of treatment includes licking your face and wagging my tail until you’re happy.”

This is, of course, is a very simplistic description of AAT and the power of the human-animal bond. Decades of data demonstrate the effectiveness of AAT with vulnerable individuals when used in conjunction with other forms of therapy. Florence Nightingale noted in her Notes on Nursing in 1859 that “a small pet animal is often a great companion for the sick, especially for the long chronic cases.” Other examples of AAT used throughout history include the York Retreat in England (1792) who used animals to aid in the treatment of psychiatric patients and Sigmund Freud who often incorporated his own dog “Jo-Fi,” a chow chow, in his clinical practice. More recently child psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson who, in the 1960’s, employed his co-therapist “Jingles” to assist with disturbed and seriously withdrawn youth and made considerable progress. Dr. Levinson wrote about these positive interactions in an article published in Mental Hygiene entitled “The dog as a co-therapist.”

One of the presenters, the brilliant child psychologist Aubrey Fine, has been using his own dogs with his clients for over 30 years with significant success. His dogs will even greet the young clients in the waiting room to walk them back to Dr. Fine’s office. He asserts that having a dog in the room opens the lines of communication, provides a safe and warm environment, deflects attention from the client’s problem. Additionally, he notes his child clients watch him and his dog interact in a positive manner and the young client often infers that the same kind, gentle conduct will be shown to him. Dr. Fine shared that one of his clients, an anxiety-ridden young girl who painstakingly cut herself, spent time with Dr. Fine and his dog, Hart. He found that she was much more willing to share if she told her stories and fears directly to Hart. Years later, she sent a thankful letter, addressed to Hart, indicating that Hart was indeed the counselor responsible for helping her and that it provided her with an "excuse to talk to her mom about what was going on.”

The stories above focus on youth and dogs, but they are not the only individuals who have benefited from Animal Assisted Therapy. When we consider the overlapping nature of physical, mental and emotional health, there is no limit as to how AAT can improve the lives of our clients and vulnerable individuals in hospice and palliative care settings, nursing homes, disaster and crisis response areas, schools (shyness, reading programs, anti-bullying programs), persons with autism or Aspberger’s Syndrome, individuals with eating disorders, depression, anxiety and so much more!

In the interest of space, I will continue with the conference proceedings and share other areas where AAT has been beneficial next week. In the meantime, take two pet hugs and see how you feel in the morning! I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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