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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Animals as Healers: Dogs Play a Role in Psychotherapy Success

Nov 01, 2016 11:19PM ● By Nicole Kroeber

In the last decade there has been a significant increase in the study of how animals help heal humans. Dogs, cats, fish and horses have been utilized in a variety of settings due to their ability to improve a patient’s social, emotional or cognitive functioning. The use of pets in medical settings dates back more than 150 years, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that researchers started to uncover the scientific support for that bond.

Horses have become popular therapists for humans for many reasons. They provide an opportunity for people to connect to a living being without the risk of rejection or criticism. They can put people at ease because they are nonjudgmental and only respond to people’s intent and behavior. Horses, just like dogs, are social animals. They enjoy interacting with people that are engaged and work to build a relationship with them. There are also physical benefits riders get from the movements that build core strength, body awareness and muscle memory.

Dolphin therapy was started in the early seventies with Dr. Betsy Smith, an anthropologist who observed the positive therapeutic effects dolphins had on her disabled brother. Dolphins appear to have human-like emotions and a deep trusting bond can develop between human and mammal. Many proponents of dolphin therapy believe they possess an innate gentleness and a mysterious power to trigger the healing process in humans.

Dogs can greatly enhance the therapeutic process as they are a source of peace and comfort. Scientists have the empirical facts to declare that non-human animals are sentient beings. Sentience is defined as the ability to feel, perceive, be conscious or experience subjectivity. France, Quebec and Switzerland have recognized animals as living beings gifted with sentience—rather than property—and have enacted this new law. With this law comes legal consequences to anyone who exposes an animal to extreme anxiety or suffering.

Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, professor at Emory University in Georgia, has researched MRI scans of dogs. He concluded that dogs’ brains look and function just like human brains in many ways. Humans and dogs share many of the same basic structures, including a brain region that is associated with positive emotions. He has also found proof that our canine companions really do love us.

“We can no longer hide from the evidence,” Berns says. “Dogs and many other animals—especially our closest primate relatives—have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.”

Research has shown the physiological benefits in humans with the use of therapy dogs. These benefits include decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, a more relaxed body posture, and a reduction in the physical symptoms of anxiety. Studies show that simply petting a dog for only 15 minutes releases the so-called “feel good” hormones, serotonin and oxytocin. Serotonin contributes to our overall well-being and happiness. Oxytocin helps us feel happy and connected. It also supports the body and its ability to be in a state of readiness to heal and to grow new cells; it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier. Several studies have proven that human-dog interactions elicit the same type of oxytocin positive feedback and bonding as seen between mothers and their infants. 

Dogs are creatures of the present moment and they inspire us to be more mindful. Sitting and placing a hand on a dog’s belly while matching our breathing to theirs changes the physiology of the body and turns on the parasympathetic response, the body’s natural way of calming itself. This slowing down and pausing creates a space to deepen presence; it interrupts the stress response and creates a quiet clearing in the present moment.

Dogs can also be instrumental with teaching social skills to children. Teaching children how do tricks with the dogs that focus on social skills—such as maintaining eye contact, and using tone of voice and facial expressions—encourages collaboration with the dogs. With repetition, kids are able to apply said skills with people. Canines can be used in role plays where the child pretends to engage a peer using these skills and attempts to make a new friend.

When actively included in the therapy process, dogs can act as an ice-breaker; help build rapport; help to foster trust; are a source of comfort; accept unconditionally and fail to judge. 

Nicole Kroeber, LCSW, has a holistic psychotherapy private practice in Cheshire. Her dog Mieka is one of her furry facilitators. Nicole can be reached at 203-537-7133.

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