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How Therapy Dogs Almost Never Came to Exist

The idea of therapy dogs was originally met with derision and laughter.

I recently read a report about how Mineta San Jose International Airport's passenger waiting area is regularly visited by therapy dogs for a few hours each week. The program began after the 9/11terrorist attacks which used hijacked passenger planes as weapons. After that event an airport pastor brought in her own dog to help soothe tense and worried passengers. However, even without such fear provoking events, air travel is often a stressful event. Some people are simply afraid of flying, others are traveling for job interviews, important business meetings, to attend to family crises, in response to the loss of a loved one, or for many other purposes all of which tend to be associated with anxiety. Since the soothing effect of contact with a friendly dog is now well established, it seems like a useful thing to have dogs available for this purpose. The program now has 11 volunteers and the four-footed counselors wear red vests covered in patches embroidered with slogans like "Pet me I'm friendly."

When I see reports like this I must admit that I have a feeling of disbelief. This is not a disbelief in the usefulness of using dogs to relieve stress or to assist in therapeutic interventions, but rather disbelief that this practice has come to be accepted by mainstream psychological, educational and medical practitioners. This was not always so. My own first contact with this type of therapy actually led me to predict that such practices would never come to pass.

It was quite early in my career, in the 1960’s, and I was attending the American Psychological Association meetings in New York. Because of my interest in dogs and their relationship to humans, I was caught by the title of a talk to be given by a child psychologist, Boris Levinson, who was at Yeshiva University. This would turn out to be the first formal presentation of animal assisted therapy given before a national audience in North America. Levinson was working with a very disturbed child and found, by chance, that when he had his dog Jingles with him the therapy sessions were much more productive. Furthermore, other children who had difficulty communicating seemed more at ease and actually made real attempts at conversation when the dog was present. Levinson gathered data from several such cases and this formed the basis of the paper that he presented at this APA meeting. The reception of his talk was not positive, and the tone in the room did not do credit to the psychological profession. Levinson was distressed to find that many of his colleagues treated his work as a laughing matter. One even cat-called from the audience, "What percentage of your therapy fees do you pay to the dog?" This did not bode well for the future of such research and therapy, and I thought that it was likely that I would never hear about such use of animals in therapeutic interactions again.

I might have been correct, however, an individual whose voice could not be ignored by the psychological community essentially argued in favor of animal assisted therapy from his grave. At this point in time, it was only some 15 years after Sigmund Freud’s death. Just by chance several new biographies of Freud’s life had recently been released including translations of many of his letters and journals. There were also new insights into Freud’s life coming from books published by people who knew him, and some even described his interactions with his household full of dogs.

Sigmund Freud therapy dog Jofi stress psychotherapy

Sigmund Freud and his "therapy dog," Jofi

From these various sources, we learned that Freud often had his Chow Chow, Jofi, in his office with him during psychotherapy sessions. The dog was originally in the room as a comfort to the psychoanalyst, who claimed that he was more relaxed when the dog was nearby. However, Freud soon began to notice that the presence of the dog seemed to help patients during their therapy sessions as well. This difference was most marked when Freud was dealing with children or adolescents. It seemed to him that the patients seemed more willing to talk openly when the dog was in the room. They were also more willing to talk about painful issues. The positive results were not limited only to children, but also were seen in adults. Thus it became clear that Freud had observed very much the same phenomena that Levinson described.

When Levinson and others learned about Freud’s experiences with this, it seemed like a form of validation. The climate now warmed given the evidence that Freud was willing to entertain the usefulness of animal helpers in psychotherapy, and thus the laughter stopped and some serious work began.

The ultimate validation of animal assisted therapy would come from psychologist Alan Beck and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher. They used direct physiological measures to show that when a person interacted with, or even was simply in the presence of, a friendly dog, there were immediate changes in their physiological responses. Breathing became more regular, heart beat slowed, muscles relaxed and there were other physiological changes suggesting a lowering of sympathetic nervous system activity. Since it is the sympathetic nervous system which responds to stress, this indicated that the dog was clearly reducing the stress levels of the people in its presence. There is a bias among psychological researchers, in that they tend to use physiological measures as if they are the “gold standard” for the validity of a concept. Since they could now see the direct effects that pets were having on the physiological indexes of stress, the notions associated with animal assisted therapy became much more acceptable. This is evidenced by the fact that the number of pet assisted therapy programs was under twenty in 1980, but by the year 2000 over one thousand such programs were in operation. One no longer hears laughter at the concept of dogs being used for stress relief, however we do see a lot of people smiling and relaxing as they pet therapy dogs.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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