Why Dogs Make Great Therapists

Therapy DogI am a psychiatrist in private practice and have been practicing with the aid of canines for the past 12 years. Without any doubt, it can be said dogs have the capability to be great therapists.

Therapy Dogs Ease the Environment

A therapy dog‘s presence adds a lightness to the treatment room, easing the history-taking process. The dog’s circus antics can distract highly agitated patients. The canine’s preference for kind and trustworthy individuals and their indifference to physical attributes and monetary worth demonstrate an excellent example for healthy relationship building.

Therapy Dogs Create a Safe Environment and Encourage Friendship

In treating paranoia, the dog’s gentle nature helps create a safe environment. The most profound example was the case of Elizabeth (name changed), a middle-aged woman suffering from intractable psychosis despite a plethora of medication. Her paranoia precluded her ability to interact normally with humans, yet she felt safe with therapy dogs.

From the beginning of treatment she befriended my five-pound Maltese, Shanie, and proceeded to lay down on the floor during her sessions, talking to me through him. For her birthday I gave Elizabeth a photograph of Shanie to hang on her wall. One day she came in saying she was hearing voices that were telling her to kill herself, but added, “Shanie was looking down at me and I couldn’t do that to him.”

Prescribing Therapy Dogs?

Witnessing the effects my “therapist” dog had on patients, people have asked if I ever “prescribed” a dog. In psychiatry there is no panacea for any disorder, although some treatments are clearly more effective than others. Many treatments work best in combination, a dog included.

The Success of Dogs Aiding Therapists Are Irrefutable

Certain symptoms of depression, including feelings of social isolation, worthlessness, and loneliness, are poor responders to medication, yet the therapeutic benefits of pets are irrefutable.

As non-human creatures fascinate most people, a pet draws attention. A 30-minute outing with my dogs on average attracts six onlookers, with usual comments like, “They are so cute, how old are they? What breed?” A conversation begins and within minutes one has a new friend. Dog parks and puppy classes are excellent meeting places. The responsibility of pet ownership also provides a sense of purpose to the individual.

Therapy Dogs Affect Brain Chemistry

Like medication, animals (like therapy dogs) affect brain chemistry. Studies have shown that stroking an animal releases a chemical called oxytocin into the bloodstream. Oxytocin is the same chemical released in women at the cusp of delivery, and engenders a feeling of calm and contentment that facilitates bonding. Thus, petting Rover reduces anxiety, decreases stress hormone release, and lowers blood pressure and cholesterol.

Dogs Have Value as Therapists

Additional medical accomplishments attributed to dogs such as “smelling” cancer cells or predicting seizures are, although wondrous in theory, quite speculative.

With certainty animals have therapeutic value, but as adjutants to traditional treatment, not as replacements. The goal of all treatment should be remission, and therefore any modality, within reason, that improves outcome should be considered.

However, canines cannot replace more conventional treatments, such as human healthcare providers. At the end of the day, Doctor Shanie is still just my email handle.

Dr. Sheri Spirit


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