The Dog Did It!
The Utterly Amazing Power of Therapeutic Animals
What is it about the wagging tail of a dog or the purr of a cat that makes us feel so calm, so safe, so present? Not a few clients have said, “I came to see you for psychotherapy because you work with dogs.” I remember one patient who came in and said, “Y’know I didn’t know you from beans, but I figured, how bad could you be if you rescued two dogs?” Another young man was so traumatized by abuse that he held onto one of the dogs and cried for two months. He could not yet tolerate the vagaries of human relationship, but he could let the dog love him. And through that a bridge was formed back to life.
One of the major sources of disease is the stress of loneliness and isolation. Even in the midst of a crowd, we can feel alone, anxious, disconnected. As a result, one of the essential elements to healing is connectedness. A physician without empathy, compassion, and love is doing half her job. So the question becomes, do animals feel? More specifically, do they feel with us and like us?
The evidence seems to suggest they do. When my patients cry, my dogs go over, nuzzling them with their snouts, licking away their tears, looking for ways to soothe them and make them feel better. Anyone with pets has seen the same thing. They know when we’re angry, when we’re afraid, when we’re sad, when we’re angry. And the only way they could know would be to have similar emotional states themselves.
The Field of Pet Therapy
Something about animals-not just cats and dogs, but horses, dolphins, birds, geese, mice and rabbits-helps us to heal. It is not simply a sentimental fantasy. It’s science.
Aaron Katcher MD and Patricia Gonser PhD are currently engaged in research that suggests that animals can have a positive effect on people’s mental health. I know one fellow, a 55-year old teacher who was going through a terrible spot with his adolescent son, who eventually needed hospitalization. He had also suffered from depression off and on through his life. And he said, in no uncertain terms, that if he had not had his dog, he would have lost his mind or left his home.
In the Ohio Reformatory for Women, Susan Kestella is the Director of a pet therapy and wildlife rehab program. They started with wildlife rehabilitation as a way of helping the community (because it is such time-consuming work, few people can or will do it) but it turned out to be much, much more. The inmates became intensely involved, developing exquisite rapports with the animals as well as with each other, building self-respect, skills, and resources they weren’t aware they had. What they found was that the disabled pets that they could never release and had to keep in the prison, were able to help not only the inmates who worked with them, but dozens of other low-functioning or disabled inmates. They found that the simple act of holding the rabbits on their laps calmed the women and changed the environment in the prison itself.
For more information please go to The University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey where there are articles on the subject.