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Dogs and psychotherapy

You would be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t) at how many dog trainers, dog walkers, pet sitters, dog groomers, animal welfare and animal rescue people have been abused as children. I don’t think anyone has done any research on this but my impression is that it is definitely more widespread than in the general population. For example:

  • one of the best trainers in Australia, who has worked in film and television with her dog, was beaten by her parents with an electric wire cord and burned with cigarettes. Her brother was permanently hospitalised and later committed suicide. She became totally dedicated to use of positive reinforcement for dog training.
  • another excellent hobby trainer, dedicated to producing health food for dogs, was sexually abused, suffered from depression and bulimia and was a “gym junkie”
  • one of our best reward-based trainers had Asperger’s, wasn’t abused as such, but had a very difficult childhood because she was misdiagnosed as being mentally retarded

These are just a few examples.

Freud and dogs

Freud at first was not interested in dogs. He got a dog when his youngest and favourite daughter, Anna, was a child, to protect her as she walked home through the forest. The dog was a Chow/German Shepherd cross, a breed also favoured by ethologist Konrad Lorenz (although Wikipedia says it was a Chow called Jo-Fi). Freud became a convert to dogs, and his dog used to sit in his room during consultations. He said once that losing a dog was like losing a child, only not as intense.

Jo-Fi attended all of Freud’s therapy sessions because he felt that dogs had a special sense that allows them to judge a person’s character accurately, and admitted he depended on Jo-Fi for an assessment of a patient’s mental state (according to Stanley Coren – but I haven’t yet looked at Coren’s book to see what his source of information was.) Wikipedia says that Freud “noticed that the presence of the dog was helpful because the patient would find that their speech would not shock or disturb the dog and this reassured them and so encouraged them to relax and confide. This was most effective when the patient was a child or adolescent.”

Harry Guntrip and his mother’s dog

British psychoanalyst, Harry Guntrip, was abused by his mother. She used to beat him with a cane then send him to the village to buy another one when she broke it on him. He visited her once as an adult, she told him she used to have a dog, but she had to give him up because she couldn’t stop beating him. I wonder how much this all influenced Guntrip to be the kind of therapist he was.

The importance of pet ownership

One of my clients was a woman who had just retired from work and was depressed. She got a dog in order to get herself out of the house and go for regular walks. The dog was her passport to talking with people all over the neighbourhood, and she and her dog became a local legend.

I have also had clients who were heroin addicts. Their devotion to their dogs was the one thing that gave them a sense of purpose or responsibility – they had to be able to look after the dog. I have just started to do some voluntary work at a drop-in centre for addicts, helping them with their dogs. It is a pleasure to work with a service that is dog-friendly and encourages clients to bring their dogs in. One former client told me recently that his dog is now 13 and they do a 5 km bike ride every day.

My own dogs have been a lifeline to me. When I got my first German Shepherd, I was unhappy and stressed at work, I would sleep most of Saturday, and I lived for dog training classes on Sunday morning. That’s what kept me going. Once, I needed hospital treatment. My doctor didn’t want to admit me because he was worried about who would look after my dogs. He arranged out-patient treatment instead.

Pets can be very therapeutic. No-one greets you when you get home with such total and uninhibited joy as a dog. Pets are not judgemental. They don’t care whether you are fat or ugly, or whether you are wealthy or wearing designer clothes. As long as you can afford dog food and get your walking shoes on, they are happy.

The benefits of having contact with a dog or other animal

There is now a growing body of evidence that contact with animals is therapeutic. Many groups organise visits with dogs to nursing homes and hospitals. A friend of mine takes his dog to aged care homes and also school for disabled people, and gets a tremendous response. The dog brings out the need of many elderly people to talk about the dogs they have had in their lives. It is particularly sad when they are unable to take their dogs with them into the aged care home. Some facilities have resident dogs. Under my guidance, my brother, working with with residents with Acquired Brain Injury, had staff learn how to deal with a resident dog. He told them that the dog was “the fourth resident” and had a care plan for her. The hardest part was to stop one resident from over-feeding the dog chocolate biscuits. The carer on duty on Sunday afternoons regularly took the both residents for a walk in the park, beneficial to both of them.

The biggest problem with having resident dogs or cats in residential facilities is that staff come and go on different shifts and no-one has regular responsibility for feeding, exercising and toileting the animal. Visiting programs can be less of a burden for the staff, but the residents get less contact with the animals.

Animals have become a permanent feature of the classroom in one English school.

Now, pigs teach tiny tots to behave in British school

London, Dec 12 (IANS) Two pigs are now teaching four-year-old pupils at a school in Britain to behave well and a pleased head teacher said: “It sounds bizarre but it’s working brilliantly.”The miniature pigs – Charlie and Lola – are permitted to live in the classroom. They run around between the ­children’s desks or lie down for to take a nap in their pen at the back of the class.

The pigs follow the tiny tots into the playground at break-time, before returning when the bell sounds.

“It sounds bizarre but it’s working brilliantly,” Daily Express quoted head teacher Lynne Coxell as saying.

“The pigs have settled in beautifully and having them around has made the children calmer, quieter and generally nicer towards each other.”

St Edward’s primary school in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, has pygmy goats, hens, cockerels, rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas.

The house-trained pigs, which came to the school last month, have had only one ‘accident’ inside school.

“They are very clean animals but one of the pigs did get a little overexcited.”

“Normally they go outside when they need the toilet but one didn’t quite make it. They are very clever too, they know how to ­follow a teacher right around the school. It’s very funny to watch. They have quickly got used to all the noise the children make,” said Coxell.

Studies show that there are specific physiological effects of contact with animals, such as improvements in blood pressure and heart rate, and lower stress levels.

Kathy Diamond Davis, author, “Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others” and the Canine Behavior Series, at _VeterinaryPartner.com says:

“There have been several studies measuring reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, and respirations and others testing levels of stress hormones, like cortisol. For feasibility, we simply asked people to rate their perceived stress from 0 to 10. The results for the first study will be published later this year in the journal Pain Medicine. We just submitted to second to another journal for consideration for publication and are keeping tails and fingers crossed.

There was an earlier small study, published so far only as an abstract from a meeting poster presentation. In this study, anxiety scores were reduced by an average of 33 percent in 28 patients spending 15 minutes with a therapy dog prior to a scheduled MRI compared with essentially no change among 6 patients waiting for an MRI without the therapy dog [Ruchman R,

Ruchman A, Jaeger J, Durand D, Kelly P. Animal-assisted anxiolysis prior to MRI. *Am J Roentgenol* 2001; *196*: A120-34.]. In another study, 35 severely depressed adults waited 15 minutes in a room with a therapy dog or a room with magazines before receiving electroconvulsive shock therapy [Barker, et al. Effects of animal-assisted therapy on patients’ anxiety, fear, and depression before ECT. *J ECT* 2003; *19*: 38-44.]. Compared with waiting with magazines, fear was significantly reduced and anxiety showed a trend toward significant reduction with the dog visit.”

Dogs working with autistic children

Dogs are particularly good at eliciting a response from residents or patients who are withdrawn, non-verbal or uncommunicative. One of my clients had a large, impressive-looking German Shepherd. One day in the park, an autistic child approached, grabbed the dog by the tail the gave him a big hug. Dogs generally don’t like being handled like this. The big dog tolerated it with good humour and the child said “gorgeous!”. His carer said it was the most he had spoken in a long time.

Dogs for the Deaf Inc.

In 1993, I visited Dogs for the Deaf in Central Point Oregon, USA, with William E. Campbell, on of my mentors, who was helping out with the program. They are now also training and providing Autism Assistance Dogs.

Autism Assistance Dogs are trained to enhance the safety of children with autism by acting as an anchor and preventing the child from bolting into unsafe environments such as traffic, bodies of water, etc. Autism Assistance Dogs can also have a calming effect on the child and may improve the child’s willingness and ability to communicate and bond.

Smart Pups

On the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Smart Pups has been training dogs to assist autistic children, and also to act as seizure alert dogs.

Similar to Seeing Eye dogs, autism service dogs are professionally trained for most of their young lives. While such dogs are all trained in behavior disruption, tethering, and tracking.

On these specific tasks:

  • “The dog can touch or nudge a child to break processes leading to repetitive behavior. They’ll snuggle or give kisses to the child. This also helps calm them instead of letting behaviors escalate into a full-blown meltdown. Often, this light prod is all they need to redirect themselves.”
  • “The dogs can help improve the children’s social skills. It gives them a reason to communicate and something appropriate to talk about.”
  • “Studies show that children who have a special dog friend to accompany their daily routine feel less pressure from their surroundings. Kids with dogs feel less anger and experience less aggression. This can also translate to improved sleeping habits, as many kids with autism suffer from insomnia.”

Seizure alert dogs

Dogs are so attuned to their owners’ body language and other signs that they now act as seizure alert dogs, letting their owner know when a seizure is coming, so the person can go and lie down in safety.

This is what Smart Pups say:

“Seizure Response Dogs are trained to stay with their owner should they have a seizure and on command ‘get help’ and assist in recovery. Some dogs are able to alert to an oncoming seizure, allowing their owner to get in a safe position.

Smart Pups Seizure Response Dog, Kruiser has been placed with Heather and her daughter Karla, who is 7 years old.

Heather wrote to Smart Pups asking for a seizure response dog as her seizures were getting so frequent she didn’t like leaving the house. Heather’s doctor was fully on board with the idea as her medication just wasn’t working any more. The possibility of having a seizure in public without help at hand was daunting and Heather no longer felt comfortable or safe going out on her own. Something had to been done for Heather to help her to live a more normal life.

That’s where Kruiser comes in. With Kruiser by Heather’s side her confidence soars when she is out in public and with her stress levels reduced, it is hoped that this will decrease her seizures. Kruiser goes everywhere with Heather: to the University with Heather, Karla’s school and to shops, on public transport and restaurants.

If Heather has a seizure Kruiser has been trained to lay with her, lick and nudge her, until she comes around.  Heather can then use Kruiser as an anchor to help steady herself or she can command Kruiser to ‘get help’, and he will go and touch someone to ask for help her.

But Kruiser is no ordinary seizure dog. Kruiser is one of the special few who can sense and react to an oncoming seizure.

Heather says: “Kruiser is now out of the crate and sleeps on his bed in my room and even wakes me up after my night seizures. He has taken to sleeping on the floor by the bed some of the night. He’s become my shadow and goes everywhere with me.  Recently when I was unwell, Kruiser was there for me, helped me up, walked slowly for me to balance and got help even without me asking.  When I need him most he is there to help. He knows.” 

Kruiser is doing an amazing job looking after Heather and Karla. With your help we can have many more Smart Pups just like him.”

Diabetes medical alert dogs

Dr Aish Ryan from Vets at Home has a client, Michelle, whose German Shepherd Dog “Paws” has started to act as an alert dog when Michelle’s blood sugar drops. Apparently this is something that Paws started to do spontaneously. I will be meeting them soon to get more information.

Aussie Angels Assistance Dogs Inc. trains and provides dogs for medical alert, to assist people with mobility problems and physical disabilities and to help autistic children.

The HYPO ALERT DOG will go to any extremes to capture its owner’s attention, awake or asleep, and will not stop ‘Alerting’ until the owner takes notice. The dog will then settle down and relax only once the owner is taking their blood level reading.

Dogs instinctively know just prior to a Hypo that it is about to occur.  They will signal their owner with out of character behaviour, such as dogs who don’t normally lick, will lick their owner’s face frantically, whine, croon, paw, jump on or use any means they can to “Alert” their owner of the imminent danger.

People can experience a ‘Hypo’ even when they are asleep, and dogs will go to extremes to awaken their owner.  If unsuccessful they will race about the house to “alert” other family members to the crisis.

They have found dogs can help autistic children, who are:

… lost in a dark world of confused isolation, often unable to communicate meaningfully with other human beings, and shrinking from the touch of another person.  

The dog meets them  right there in the shadows, with non judgemental and unconditional love, non intrusive affection and quiet acceptance.

Over time, the sweet acceptance of the dog may gently lead the autistic person out of the world of shadows to a brighter place. 

The are conducting research into the way that dogs can help autistic kids learn to  accept physical contact and hugs.

Innovative role for dogs in cancer therapy

Therapy Dogs in Cancer Care

Dogs that visit patients with cancer have been convincingly shown to reduce stress, loneliness, and mood disturbance that may complicate cancer care. In addition, dogs may provide important motivation for patients to maintain rehabilitation programs that have been shown to reduce cancer risk and improve cancer survival. Outlining all of these issues and many more, Therapy Dogs in Cancer Care: A Valuable Complementary Treatment is a ground-breaking, highly innovative addition to the literature on cancer care. Detailing a comprehensive summary of truly impressive research demonstrating the ability of dogs to serve an important therapeutic role within the cancer arena and in other serious medical conditions, the text provides highly practical advice and very helpful “tips” to ensure that those who wish to employ dogs to assist the cancer patient have the necessary knowledge and “tools” to optimize outcomes. Authored by Dawn A. Marcus, MD, an expert in both pain management and health improvement through human and dog interaction, Therapy Dogs in Cancer Care: A Valuable Complementary Treatment is an extremely well-organized, well-researched, and highly readable book. Providing practical suggestions to effectively incorporate dogs into cancer care, with detailed instructions about requirements for therapy dogs to ensure visits are safe and limit unwanted spread of infection, Therapy Dogs in Cancer Care: A Valuable Complementary Treatment is an invaluable reference that will inform and delight both the clinician desiring a “how-to” text as well as the casual reader.

Therapy dogs assisting people with psychiatric illnesses and other disabilities

  • We are familiar with dogs trained as guide dogs for the blind.
  • Dogs can also be trained to assist deaf people, alerting them to sounds such as a doorbell, telephone, fire alarm or a boiling kettle.
  • Trained assistance dogs for people with physical diabilities can pick up things you have dropped, bring the phone and give it to you, turn on light switches and press lift buttons.
  • In the US now, dogs are being used specifically to assist with psychiatric patients. They can help to elevate patients’ mood, give them a new focus and encourage withdrawn or depressed people to be more communicative. Sometimes the dog is just present in the waiting room, and sometimes the dog is included in therapy sessions.

There are some recent books on the use of dogs in counselling and mental health care.


by Cynthia Chandler

Readers will learn the proper way to select, train, and evaluate an animal for therapy. Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling is the most comprehensive book available dedicated to training mental health practitioners in animal assisted therapy (AAT). It explains the history and practice of AAT in counseling, discusses the latest empirical research, and provides an in-depth explanation of the psychodynamics of AAT within various theoretical frameworks.


by Jane Miller

This is the first book to detail how dogs are increasingly benefiting those who suffer from a range of emotional ills, from eating disorders and anxiety to agoraphobia, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Covers such topics as the criteria to consider when choosing the right dog for you; how to navigate the procedural regulations that apply to a service dog; how to respond when taking your service dog out in public.

There is a research project on Animal-assisted therapy currently being conducted Dr Neerosh Mudaly of Monash University. Dr Mudaly is a Senior Research Fellow with Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia at Monash University where she also teaches at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

She is a clinical consultant at the Australian Childhood Foundation and has held a number of managerial positions in welfare organizations overseas and in Australia.

The following article is taken from: http://www.dhs.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/578853/adoption-permanet-care-update-july-2010.pdf

An interesting study into helping children recover from trauma using animals “as therapists”, is being undertaken by researcher, Dr. Neerosh Mudaly of Monash University.

This two year study uses small animals like guinea pigs and kittens with children who have been traumatized by experiences such as domestic violence. The children can see their own experiences reflected in the vulnerability of these little animals. By helping to look after the animal and making it feel safe, they are using activity based and non-verbal ways of addressing their own fears. Animal therapy has been changing trauma symptoms for children for a while now, but Dr. Mudaly’s study is aimed at providing scientific evidence about its success. Hopefully her outcomes might provide another option for children who do not benefit from the usual “talking” therapies currently available.

The Age also published an article about her research:

HUGS ABOUND IN ANIMAL THERAPY: Nick Miller, The Age, 11/12/09

Jake checks out a guinea pig that is used as a form of therapy for traumatised children. Photo: Rebecca Hallas.

A YOUNG boy traumatised by domestic violence had shut down. He would not talk, trapped in his pain.

But after a day feeding and patting a guinea pig, he came home to his mother singing.

A young girl, scarred by her broken family, sat in an animal shelter with a kitten under each arm, and said quietly to them,
”It’s all right, I don’t have a home either.”

Anecdotes like this are common in the growing field of animal therapy.

But for the first time, a Melbourne researcher is running a study aimed at proving how ”animals as therapists” help children recover from trauma.

Other groups use dogs and horses, but this particular group begins with guinea pigs: small, helpless and often terrified, they are a canvas on to which children can project their own fears and begin to understand them.

”The children see the vulnerability of the smaller animal, how scared it is,” said Dr Neerosh Mudaly of Monash University, who will run the study. ”They learn how to make them feel safe, they cuddle up to them and they see the parallels with their own experience. It’s quite amazing.”

The brains of traumatised children do not develop normally but become centred on fear and ”hyper-vigilance”, she said. That makes them less responsive to conventional talking therapies.

”New theories are exploring the idea that activity-based, non-verbal programs are more effective than using language.”

The animal therapy group has been running for several years, through family and youth support program WAYSS.

Case workers say they can see the results in the smiles and laughter of the children. They watch as a silent child, dwelling on the past, can be nudged back to the present by the attention-seeking headbutt of a pet. But they want to turn these anecdotes into scientific proof.

Dr Mudaly’s two-year research will measure empathy, cognition and social interaction, to see how a range of trauma symptoms change through the program.

The research has been made possible by a $120,000 donation from PETstock Foundation, a charity established by a chain of pet stores.

PETstock board member Andrew Darbyshire – a Melbourne businessman who came up with the idea of putting zoo animals and an aquarium into the new Royal Children’s Hospital – said he had always been fascinated by the synergy between children and animals.

”There’s definitely a connection,” he said. ”I felt it was important this research be done so it can be demonstrated in Australia and the world.”

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