Many people love to have a furry companion, humankind’s best friend. Scientific research validates emotional support dogs are healers. In the 1800s, Florence Nightingale discovered pets have reduced stress and depression. This discovery was the beginning of a new era of interaction between pets and humans. A physiologist and a psychologist were fascinated with the connection between humans and animals. They created a theory called the Human-Animal Bond. Many years later, the official research began in 1960. Dr. Boris Levinson recognized dogs had a positive mental effect on his patients. It became evident to him his patients were more comfortable and willing to talk freely. These apparent changes in human behavior during an AAT session are an essential part of therapeutic techniques.
Emotional support dogs (ESD) can help minimize various mental health disorders; social, emotional, behavioral, psychiatric disorders, and physical illnesses with direct interaction. For example, by simply stroking the ESD, the brain releases serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin. These are all hormones that elevate moods. Emotional support dogs reduce loneliness, anxiety and are a distraction to a peaceful state of mind. During assisted animal therapy (AAT), the ESD provides soothing support and is recognized as sixth-sense when needed. They are unique therapeutic animals who respond intuitively in crisis or during active mental health disorder symptoms. Physical contact elevates the feeling of loneliness and isolation. Cuddling, stroking, talking to an ESDs produces physical warmth, companionship and opens the door to better communication. AAT has become one of the several evidence-based psychotherapy treatments.
Emotional support dogs are not regular house pets. According to the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, emotional support dogs are qualified by their clinician as suitable and no evidence of unjustifiable stimuli that can be harmful to a patient’s welfare. Each dog undertakes a behavioral examination which includes role-playing animal-assisted therapy sessions introducing various mental health disorders. Every dog was assessed on their reliability, predictability, controllability of their social behavior. The clinician is highly perceptive to the patient’s safety and the dog themselves. The dogs with the ability to cope with stressful situations, nurturing, aware, and intuitive were excellent candidates and met the behavioral prerequisites.
I interviewed my client on her experience with her ESD, Gingee. Her dog instinctively recognized her depression during a time of crisis. As my client cried and laid in bed for numerous hours, Gingee approached her with tail wagging, cuddles, and licked her until she was acknowledged. They cuddled together, lifting a feeling of loneliness. Gingee became a distraction as well as a comfort to her in a time of need. She shared how she felt calm, loved, and a feeling of peace. Positive interaction enabled my client to pet, play, talk to Gingee, and even help her get out of bed. Gingee and my client’s connection was the beginning of her emotional healing.
The benefits don’t stop here. AAT is a favorable intervention to improve an individual’s physical health. The positive impact on physical health derives from epidemiological studies. The exchange between a person and an ESD lowers blood pressure, lowers breathing rate, lessens physical pain, and in some cases reduces the amount of medication needed. Dogs provide a catalyst for physical fitness through exercise. Animal-assisted therapy with dogs can motivate enhanced biological activity.
During my studies, I have learned ESD benefits families of children undergoing cancer treatment. The American Humane, the United States’ first national humane organization, released its clinical trial results, “Canines and Childhood Cancer Study.” Frequent therapy dog visits provide outstanding psychosocial advantages to the families of children going through cancer treatments. The undeniable evidence improved better communication between parents, family members, children, and medical personnel. The reduced anxiety and stress levels for all involved leads to better medical attention and a healthier psychological state.
“This study advances our understanding of the benefits of the vital bond shared between people and animals,” said principal investigator and American Humane National Director of Humane Research, Dr. Amy McCullough. “We believe the findings may further increase access to therapy animals in hospital environments, enhance therapy dog training and practice, and improve well-being outcomes for families facing the challenges of childhood cancer.”
Social relationships are essential to child and adolescent development throughout their life. Evidence prevails a therapeutic benefit for children/adolescents emotional, behavioral, cognitive, educational, and social developmental. The connection is evident in increased social competence, social networks, social interaction, and social play behavior.
Your clinician will evaluate your treatment plan if an AAT session is a valuable therapeutic strategy to your healing process. The studies were administered mainly on the effects of friendly dogs on the individuals’ physiology. Individuals’ physiology’s impact is based on individuals’ previous direct and indirect interactions and their beliefs, desires, and fears about a dog and its breed. Furthermore, the answers to some questions will decipher if this is a proper course of action. What problem areas that need attention are most likely to impact the treatment plan positively? What is the end goal with AAT? What are the ideal duration of each session and the frequency of sessions for AAT for specific disorders? If your clinician is confident AAT will be successful, the clinician will schedule an AAT session.
At Gateway to Solutions, our Emotional Support Dog, Jaxxi, has provided comfort and relaxation for many clients during their sessions. Jaxxi is a female cockapoo. Cockapoos are hypoallergenic dogs. If you are allergic to dogs, no worries, Jaxxi is unlikely to cause an allergic reaction. Jaxxi is friendly, loving, and nurturing. She will greet you with her tail wagging and loves her belly rubbed, flowing with positive energy. During an AAT session, Jaxxi can help break the ice between you and your therapist. Clients may feel resistant to opening up to their therapist. But having Jaxxi there will reduce the individual’s resistance to communicating with the therapist. We have noticed clients are more relaxed and manage their anxiety levels during their emotional support dog therapy sessions.
If you’d like a change in your therapeutic atmosphere, speak to your clinician and invite Jaxxi for an animal-assisted therapy session. She would love to radiate her undeniable energy onto you.