Dogs are the most popular pets in the U.S. — 36.5% of U.S. households owning at least one dog. When asked why they own a dog, many people answer “for companionship” or “stress release.” Neuroscience studies supports these claims, showing that the presence of a pet correlates with increased release of beta-endorphins and oxytocin (“relaxing” and “bonding” chemicals, respectively) in the brain. In the face of this research, animal-assisted therapy is gaining traction as, in the words of Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at Mayo Clinic, “medication without side effects that has so many benefits.”
Though Quakers in eighteenth-century England, Florence Nightingale, and Sigmund Freud are documented to have used animal-assisted therapy (AAT), the man considered to be the pioneer of AAT is Dr. Boris Levinson, a child psychotherapist. According to Endenburg and Baarda (1995), Dr. Levinson fell into AAT by accident: “Levinson worked with a boy who had many problems associated with social contact. On one occasion Levinson happened to have his dog with him in the office. The dog was not usually permitted into the office when clients were expected, but on this day, the boy arrived earlier than expected for his appointment. The boy began to interact with the dog and to Levinson’s surprise spoke to the dog; Levinson had not been able to provoke speech during the previous month.”
Dr. Levinson’s research showed that AAT can be extremely beneficial for childhood development, helping kids to learn the emotional skills responsible for empathy and self esteem. Today, programs are popping up across the country in which children read to therapy dogs, strengthening both their academic and emotional skills. As their reading skills grow stronger, the children experience stronger self esteem. They no longer feel self-conscious when they read in front of others. The recent “Photo Doggies for Anthony” phenomenon shows the importance of therapy dogs for children with cancer and other diseases, providing bright spots in hospitals and care facilities.
Though Levinson’s research focused on AAT as related to childhood development, it also opened doors for studies showing how beneficial AAT can be for people of all ages. AAT has been shown to help seniors recover lost motor and social skills, for example. Therapists encourage seniors to brush dogs’ fur to prevent muscle atrophy and to ask questions about the dogs to improve social and cognitive skills. Alzheimer’s and dementia patients report feeling less lonely and depressed after a visit from a therapy dog.
For people of all ages, AAT lowers blood pressure and stress hormones such as cortisol, which can stave off stress-related health problems such as heart disease. Therapy dogs also help ease the anxiety of soldiers and other individuals who suffer from PTSD. In a study coming from the United Kingdom, pet owners reported a significant reduction in minor health problems within the first month after they acquired a pet. This was especially true for dog owners, who found that they exercised more often as they walked their dogs.
Dogs are often the first choice for service animals, crisis response animals, and therapy animals, because they have outgoing temperaments and are very obedient. They can move objects, flip light switches, and push buttons better than other animals can, and are easier to maneuver in public than other creatures. Therapy dogs are different from service dogs in that therapy dogs are trained to provide emotional or psychological comfort, while service or guide dogs provide physical assistance. Service dogs can also be therapy dogs, but not all therapy dogs can be service dogs. It is also an important distinction that therapy dogs can be petted in public, whereas service dogs cannot.