Dogs are some of the best therapists I know. Even Sigmund Freud, who wasn't exactly known for being the warm and fuzzy type, had a soft spot for these four-legged creatures. Freud owned two chows, Lun and Jo-Fi, the latter of which sat dutifully beside him as the elderly analyst conducted therapy sessions with his patients.
Freud felt that his dogs had a special sense that enabled them to judge his patient's character. It was for this reason he allowed Jo-Fi to attend all of his therapy sessions. He admitted with complete sincerity that he often depended on Jo-Fi to provide him with an assessment of his patient's current mental status. Jo-Fi would dutifully alert Freud to which patients were experiencing stress by where she chose to sit during sessions. When a calm patient entered the office, Jo-Fi would lie close to Freud's couch, however, she chose to take a place across the room when she sensed that a patient was tense. She also served as Freud's unofficial timekeeper, helping the old man determine when a therapy session was finished by getting up and moving toward the office door.
Freud's dogs were more than just therapeutic collaborators. They were his constant companions, keeping him company during his final days as he suffered from mouth cancer that left him all but inarticulate. One Freudian biographer has even suggested it was when Lun retreated from the smell of her master's inoperable wound, that Freud knew the end was in sight, and asked for morphine to release him from death's grip.
Freud understood that the presence of a dog can have a calming influence on a person. Recent studies have confirmed this finding. Behavioral scientists have long known that the act of petting a calm and friendly dog can actually reduce stress in humans. There is even some evidence in the literature that people who own dogs require less medical attention and often live longer. I sometimes joke with my clients that dogs are "natural anti-depressants," for as anyone who has ever owned one can attest, dogs have an uncanny ability to be in tune with their masters' emotional states. I have heard my own clients attest to this fact, sharing with me stories of family dogs that have instinctively approached them during particularly trying times in order to offer love and companionship. Furthermore, dogs force you - whether you want to or not - to go outside and interact with the world, something that can be especially challenging for a clinical depressed individual.
It is for all these reasons that dogs are not only man's best friend but are also our best therapists.
Note: If you are thinking about adding a pet to your family, visit the ASPCA's website at www.aspca.org and check out their page of adoption tips.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.