People with disabling phobias are often able to cope successfully with their anxiety when accompanied by an emotional support dog. Stressed-out college students seem to be aided by animal therapy volunteers invited by counseling departments to bring their dogs to the college. Likewise, the elderly in nursing homes as well as injured or traumatized veterans in VA hospitals benefit from the presence of trained therapy dogs and their human partners. These richly complex interactions, some of which have been scientifically documented, are the result of “artful” and often instinctive behavior rather than rote conduct on the dog’s part.
Psychiatric service dogs (PSD) and emotional support animals (ESA) provide assistance to people with, among other things, severe depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They alleviate or mitigate some symptoms simply by their presence—a wet nose pressed against a face or a furry head in a lap is known to produce wondrously positive effects. In addition, dogs can be explicitly trained in specific behaviors, such as blocking their person’s destructive actions, including self-mutilation.
In New York City, the Good Dog Foundation and Pet Partners, both 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, train human-canine therapy teams. Once trained, the teams go to hospitals, clinics, educational or community facilities in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts as well as disaster sites around the country. While the dogs receive basic obedience instruction, their essential benefit is their capacity to offer comfort that produces a positive outcome.
Another organization that trains and provides pet-therapy teams, Angels on a Leash, backs up this art with science. It reports that a study by Rebecca Johnson, PhD, RN, of the University of Missouri, Columbia, Center for the Study of Animal Wellness, showed that within minutes of petting a dog, a person experiences a surge of beneficial hormones commonly associated with health and positive feelings. These include beta-endorphin, prolactin, dopamine, oxytocin and beta phenylethylamine. In addition, researchers reported a decrease of cortisol, the stress hormone.
The work of the Delta Society, which was started in the U.S. in the 1970s and promotes animal-assisted therapy throughout the country, was anticipated by none other than the venerable Sigmund Freud, originator of “talk therapy,” or psychoanalysis. According to his biographers, Freud was much attached to Jofi, his pet Chow, who reportedly was present at all of Freud’s 1930s psychotherapy sessions. Though Freud advocated that human therapists provide a “blank wall” to patients, Jofi’s therapeutic role was quite different. Freud used Jofi’s behavior to offer comments and psychodynamic interpretations; patients would understand and communicate back in the same manner. Jofi even signaled the end of each therapy session by pawing at the door when the time for the session had elapsed (Walsh 2009).
One of Freud’s patients—psychiatrist Roy Grinker, whom Freud analyzed in 1932—recalled his time with Freud and Jofi:
In the therapy sessions, Freud’s Chinese Chow, Jofi, would sit alongside the couch. Whenever Jofi became restless, Freud would end the session early, so Grinker learned to bring treats for the dog in order to get his full time. Freud frequently offered comments and interpretations through his dog. When Jofi would get up and scratch at the door to be let out, Freud would say, ‘‘Jofi doesn’t approve of what you’re saying.’’ When the dog scratched at the door to be let back in, Freud would playfully say, ‘‘Jofi wants to give you another chance.’’ Grinker added, ‘‘Once when I was emoting with a great deal of vigor, the dog jumped on top of me, and Freud said, ‘You see, Jofi is so excited that you’ve been able to discover the source of your anxiety!’’’ (Walsh 2009).
Freud, who seemed to feel that dogs and other animals had a special ability to judge a person’s character, was not alone in this idea. In the 1950s, psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson used his dog Jingles to help him work with an autistic child who was otherwise unresponsive to standard psychotherapy. Two decades later, a 1973 survey by Rice, Brown and Caldwell titled “Animals and Psychotherapy,” found that 41 percent of American psychotherapists used animal content or animals, usually dogs, in their treatment.
New research supports an empathic connection between dogs and humans that is rare in the animal world. For example, research on suggestive yawning by Romero, Konno and Hasegawa in 2013 implied that dogs are unusually empathic to humans. In humans, yawning when seeing other people yawn has been associated by researchers with activation in neural networks related to empathy and social skills. In the Romero, et al. study, dogs in the company of yawning humans also yawned. While this is controversial, other researchers have reported that subject dogs yawned more frequently when the person who was yawning was familiar to them.
Other studies also support these ideas. For example, Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, exposed 18 pet dogs of various ages and breeds to four separate 20-second human encounters. The human participants included the dogs’ owners as well as strangers. As part of the experiment, the investigators instructed the human participants to hum, talk and pretend to cry. According to Custance and Mayer, when a person appeared to be distressed and crying, a majority of the dogs tried to comfort the person, owner or not. Custance and Mayer believe that this behavior is consistent with the view that the dogs are showing empathic concern in offering comfort to an (apparently) distressed human.
In addition, researchers led by Ernő Téglás at the Center for Cognitive Development, Budapest, Hungary, studied the visual gazing behavior of dogs who watched video presentations of a human actor turning toward one of two objects. The dogs’ eye-gaze patterns were recorded with an eye tracker similar to that used in studies of human infants. Results showed a higher tendency of gaze-following in dogs when the human’s head-turning was preceded by an expression of communicative intent (that is, directly gazing at the dog or speaking to him or her before looking in a specified direction). The researchers concluded that these findings supported the existence of social (empathic) competence in dogs similar to that of preverbal human infants.
As more research is done, and as real-world practice continues to show positive results, dog-assisted therapy is likely to become increasingly common. While the use of a canine “assistant” is still more art than science, the best advice to practicing psychologists and psychotherapists who wish to improve future treatment outcomes may well be “Get a dog.” Preferably, a cute and friendly one.