Dogs and Therapy: Truly a Person’s Best Friend

It’s that time of year when I start longing for animals, especially dogs. What is better than cuddling with an adorable puppy or just petting a dog for that matter…nothing! (unless you are allergic I guess…). Animals bring joy and comfort and tend to lighten up our moods when we are around them. Dogs are remarkable creatures and some of their professions include being part of the search and rescue police force, detecting or tracking drugs, herding animals for farmers, helping the disabled as seeing eye dogs and therapy dogs, and are now serving as models for genetic research as insight into diseases. Dogs are compassionate and often form a special bond with us.

Research has been done to study the effectiveness of therapy dogs with certain disorders. One service-training group called Wilderwood Service Dogs focuses on using dogs to help people who have neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. The dogs accompany these people as an aid to keep the individual safe and help them. One form of therapy the dog can offer in this situation is called deep pressure therapy, which happens as the dog climbs on the individual to provide warmth and pressure. In Emily Stroud’s blog Service dogs help those with neurological disorders, Tiffany Denyer the founder of this training group comments on the pressure therapy, “[The dog’s action of climbing on the patient] signals the brain to release serotonin from the deep pressure and causes reorientation and a decrease in anxiety and helps them focus” (Stroud, 2012).

The basic notion that a dog’s presence can enhance our mood and help certain people with these disorders has lead to a new study that suggests dogs may be able to repair certain mental health issues due to their positive influence on the human brain, according to Dr. Karen Becker who is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. Lindsey Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate in animal sciences, conducted a study that involved bringing shelter dogs to visit teenage boys living in a residential treatment center for drug and alcohol abuse. She noticed positive outcomes after the sessions, the teenagers were energetic, happy, and had feelings of joyfulness. This initial study demonstrated the valuable association between human-dog interactions as a way to improve the mood among teenagers at the treatment centers (Becker, 2013).

The study of dog interaction at the residential treatment shelter prompted Ellsworth to conduct another study where she split the boys in the treatment center into two groups; one group played an activity during recreation time while the other group interacted with the shelter dogs. The boys involved with this study were also being treated for ADHD and PTSD. After analyzing measures, it was shown that interacting with the dogs was more stimulating emotionally, increased joviality, attentiveness and serenity, and showed an overall decrease in sadness. Ellsworth theorizes that dopamine is released in the teenager’s brain when they await the arrival of the dogs each week. By interacting with the dogs socially, it may trigger a release of nature’s “feel good” hormones. Ellsworth states in Becker’s blog post A Groundbreaking Solution for ADHD and Depression – As Close As Your Backyard, “Using Natural stimuli like dogs could help restore the normal function of these critical chemical messengers after the brain’s chemistry has been altered through drug use”(p.1) When drug use alters opioid systems, sometimes it can leave the user feeling lonely and depressed, hence dogs would mitigate those negative emotions. At the end of the trial, the boy’s interactions with people improved. Ellsworth’s next step will be to study how dogs impact the teens when they are involved with other through structured activities like group therapy. Ellsworth theorizes the dogs will prove beneficial in this setting (Becker, 2013).

Below is a youtube video about an Iraq war veteran Alan who has PTSD and how Frankie his therapy dog helps him in his daily life. It’s really interesting to see how the dog responds to certain cues and comforts him.

References:

K. Becker. (2013, August 7). A Groundbreaking Solution for ADHD and Depression – As Close As Your Backyard? [Web Healthy Pets]. Retrieved from http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2013/08/07/dog-human-brain-chemistry.aspx

E. Stroud. (2012, October 23). Service dogs help those with neurological disorders [Web WBIR-TV]. Retrieved from http://www.wbir.com/news/article/239248/8/Service-dogs-help-those-with-neurological-disorders

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9 thoughts on “Dogs and Therapy: Truly a Person’s Best Friend

  1. I never knew therapy dogs existed until now and I certainly didn’t know that therapy dogs can help people with disorders like PTSD and Depression. I was wondering if animals other than dogs can have similar clinical benefits? Thanks for a great posting! I enjoyed reading your post and watching the youtube video you have included.

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  2. I find this very interesting because the one thing I miss most about home is definitely my dogs. I also think it would be interesting to see if other types of animals could have the same benefits, because in my experience as a total dog person I have found cats to be less friendly a lot of the time. I also wonder if these therapy dogs can have benefits on people without any neurological problems; it would be interesting to do a study on families who have dogs versus families who don’t.

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  3. First, I think this video was a great way to support the blog entry. It was engaging and interesting and very relevant. I really enjoyed this reading because my dog was bred for search and rescue and many of her puppies have been at disasters (natural and unnatural) to search for bodies (live and not). I also knew that dogs could be trained for seeing eye dogs and therapy dogs at hospitals, but this article taught me a bit about dogs who work with people who have neurological disorders. The treatment where they climb on their people was interesting, and it reminded me about when people say hugs are healthy and make you feel good because they release those same hormones that the dogs are releasing for their humans. I would also be interested to know whether dogs can have such positive effects in the classroom as well. Comparing their effect on children to the positive effects of the recess break would be interesting since they would both be positive but in different ways. I think that would be an interesting study to consider.

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  4. It doesn’t surprise me that there is neurological evidence supporting the attraction between dogs and humans. However, I thought that having a dog, a being to take care of, helped humans develop that strong relationship to the dog. Instead, this article indicates that simply being around the dog can stimulate brain responses that actually make us feel happier. Either way, I think that this mutually-beneficial relationship should be considered for mental health treatment.

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  5. I love this! I am a huge dog person and always smile when I see them around campus. I actually did know that there were therapy dogs that helped with things like anxiety disorders and depression because we looked into them for a good friend of mine when she was going through a rough time. I think the science behind the idea is really fascinating and was happy to see that there was some factual information behind the idea. There are so many types of service dogs out there and I am actually a bit surprised that more people don’t know or take advantage of this. They are very loyal animals and can be trained to perform a number of tasks depending on an individual’s needs. I would love to see more studies done with this and see more about how the presence of a therapy or service dog can help a person with a mental disability or disorder.

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  6. Great post, very interesting and applicable! This past summer I worked in an inpatient psychiatric unit for children and adolescents. On Thursdays, we had “pet therapy” where patients could interact with or simply enjoy the presence of dogs who came onto the unit. These dogs were trained specifically as pet therapy dogs–I learned a lot about this process while being on the unit and interacting with the dogs owners. Something that I note differently than you mention in your post was how the dogs interacted with the patients–these dogs were not allowed to climb on our patients and they were reprimanded not to do so. The dogs did, however, enhance the mood of the patients who interacted with the dogs. I wonder what effect pet therapy has on children and adolescents, and whether this effect is different for pet therapy with adults. I would argue that pet therapy cannot “repair certain mental health issues” but that they can definitely enhance mood and have a positive influence on the brain.

    Moreover, it has become more and more popular for colleges to bring dogs to campus for students during finals week. I wonder if there has been research done surrounding these interactions and the type of “play” that the dogs bring to students. I also wonder whether we can examine the differentiated effects that pet therapy/dog interactions have on students who do and students who do not have psychological diagnoses.

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  7. I really liked this post because I have never heard of a service dog being used for people who have PTSD. I know a few people who train seeing eye dogs and have always been interested in that idea. As people above mentioned, I wonder if there are any other animals who would be capable of doing what these dogs do. I have heard of miniature horses being used as “seeing eye horses,” but I wonder if either species is better than the other at doing this? It seems as though dogs are perfect because they are so loyal to their owners and have that connection, however it’d be interesting to see which other animals are able to form that bond with humans.

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  8. I recently came back from abroad where I lived with a blind host mother and her guide dog. The joy and comfort this animal brought my host mother was remarkable. He was incredibly well trained and a part of the entire family. He could be trusted with any task, and while my host mother may not have been suffering from a mental disorder, the relief he provided was extraordinary. I often wonder about how mental illnesses can be treated and the lengths doctors go to provide relief to patients. Reading over this article, I realized that sometimes the assistance we need is right in front of us and doesn’t need to be manufactured in a lab. Meditation, for example, has been known to help many anxious and depressed patients overcome their fears. Dogs are starting to get placed in senior living communities across America to provide comfort to the elders, but I think they deserve a place in other institutions dedicated to mental health. It’s clear they are nothing but helpful in fragile situations, and I hope more research is done to support their implementation in medical practices.

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  9. This post was extremely intriguing, as I know little about service dogs being used for individuals who are not visually impaired or epileptic. I am not surprised dogs have this effect since, for the most part, are perceived as friendly and loving creatures. However, I wonder how long this effect lasted. Specifically, the patients may have shown a decrease in negative mood and an increase in general happiness, but how long did it take until they were feeling down again? Furthermore, I am wondering if certain types of dogs have greater or less effect than others. Some individuals are inclined to small dogs, while others would rather own a large dog. Would knowing this preference further aid patients suffering from mental disorders? Overall, this study is extremely interesting and provides a basis for other researchers to continue studying what potential power service dogs can have for humanity.

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