Written by: Dr. Theresa DePorter
Dogs may be trained to do jobs for people by guiding the blind, alerting a person who seizures, detecting illegal substances at the airport or even detecting bombs but what about being present as a person seeks psychological counseling? Petting a dog may help lower blood pressure or enhance oxytocin release but should there be a dog on the therapist’s couch or rug?
Last summer, Dr. Hannah Allen-Miller completed her dissertation at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology entitled “Animal Assisted Psychotherapy: An Exploration of The Adult Client’s Experience of Individual Psychotherapy with the Assistance of a Dog”. Her research included intensive interviews following a narrative model of qualitative research to co-create meaning from the stories of the participants. As a veterinary behaviorist I observe my clients interact with their dogs and try to determine how the dog feels; as a consultant on the doctoral committee for Hannah Allen-Miller we considered the questions to assess how the people feel about a dog attending their therapy sessions. Following her own revelations of personal relationships with her own pets, Dr. Allen-Miller shared “I am curious about relationships built with animals … that are encountered in the psychotherapy office.” There are many questions and welfare issues to consider when animals participate in human psychotherapy but the goal of this project was to find out how the dog influenced the client’s experience.
Each of the seven participants who provided narrative accounts of their experiences had participated in outpatient psychotherapy for a minimum of 8 sessions and of these sessions, at least 50% of the therapy sessions occurred in the presence of the canine. The dogs were therapist-owned dogs that attended the participant’s therapy sessions. Many therapists believe a pet or dog in the therapist’s office appears to enhance the patient's ability to cope and possibly heighten the individual’s sense of safety. The focus on Dr. Allen-Miller research was to focus on the patient’s perspective and she recorded the stories and recollections of seven participants (five females and two males) ranging in age between 25 and 67 years old add depth to our understanding of the relationship between a patient and a dog in the therapists office. I am inspired by the words each client uses to describe the dog’s role in their own emotional healing process.
One participant described her first meeting with her therapist and felt that the presence of “Ivy”, the therapist’s dog “made the situation instantly feel right.” Another who had seen Ivy during 90% of his session for over a year of therapy described the greeting ritual: “Each time I arrive for my session, the little bell above the door rings and moments later there is Ivy always wagging her tail.”
Another reported during her sessions with an 8-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named Taffy they might “mutually ignore each other until an emotional need arises. If Taffy is not already next to me, I will call her to me, then I find myself holding her, wrapping my fingers lightly in her fur, feeling her warmth, her breath, and even her heartbeat.”
One participant reported “I had seen so many therapists and specialists that I was tired and uninterested in seeing one more, until I heard that there would be a dog involved.” A dog named “Wind” was an energetic, outdoorsy Black Labrador/Boxer/Staffordshire Terrier mix who was able to create an intense connection. The participant reported “… my love of animals kept me coming to appointments. Over a long period of time (like a year!) … I started noticing my ability to self-regulate better which I attribute to harnessing what Wind exuded most: self-awareness and calmness.”
Therapy may be a painful or difficult process so finding a therapist that lets the client feel safe is important. “Dr. Watson” is a cross between a Lab and a Golden Retriever who reportedly listens carefully by cocking his head to the side and hold up his ears. One participant confided “I trust dogs better than I trust people.”
Eight themes were identified through a detailed data analysis of the complex interviews and listed from most commonly identified themes to the least commonly identified by the seven volunteers[i]:
1) Participants were comforted by the dog.
2) There was a perception of the dog as being accepting and non-judgmental.
3) Participants developed a special relationship to the dog.
4) The dog provided a connection to the therapist.
5) Participants perceived the dog as…
6) Participants described the dog’s role in therapy as….
7) The distractions caused by the dog were found to be needed breaks
8) Trusted the dogs more than humans.
For these seven participants, the presence of a dog provided a beneficial augmentation of their individual psychotherapy sessions with their therapists. The benefits or drawbacks of a canine presence during therapy sessions are controversial and not widely practiced.[ii] These participants all identified themselves as “animal people”, so the results may not be as positive for people who are not fond of animals. Individuals who have allergies or a strong fear might also struggle to connect or even seek another therapist. Katcher and Beck proposed that humans naturally and instinctively may feel safe in the presence of calm animals; perhaps because an animal may signal the presence of a dangerous predator.[iii],[iv]
What about the dog? Are there negative consequences for the animal? We don't really know how being around so much human emotion affects the animal. The dog may be at risk for transferable illnesses, fatigue or injury. I believe the benefits for both the people and the dog may be managed properly to offsets the risks and veterinary behaviorists may play a role in future studies to consider the welfare and well-being of the dogs that follow’s in Jo-Fi’s paws.
How would you feel if your therapist had a dog in the office? Or maybe even a cat?
[i] Allen-Miller, H. (2014). Animal Assisted Psychotherapy: An Exploration of The Adult Client’s Experience of Individual Psychotherapy with the Assistance of a Dog (Doctoral dissertation). Michigan School of Professional Psychology, Farmington, MI.
[ii] Chandler, C. K. (2012). Animal assisted therapy in counseling (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
[iii] Katcher, A., & Beck, A. (1986). Dialogue with animals. Transactions & Studies of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 8(2), 104-112.
[iv] Beck, A. M., & Katcher, A. H. (1984). A new look at pet-facilitated therapy. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 184(4), 414-421.
Theresa L. DePorter DVM, MRCVS, DECAWBM, DACVB
Theresa DePorter is board certified diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Behavior (ACVB) and the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine (ECAWBM). She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Purdue University and her Bachelor Science in Biology in 1992. She has been seeing behavior consultations at Oakland Veterinary Referral Services in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan since 2004.