By Dr. Becker
Did you know that renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud included his pet Chow, Jofi, in his therapy sessions? Freud reportedly believed that Jofi could give insights into his patients’ comments and offered a supportive presence.1
Humans have undoubtedly been drawn to dogs for centuries not only because of their usefulness for certain types of physical work but also because of their ability to offer emotional support.
Today we have the science to back up what many people have known all along — that having an animal nearby somehow makes stressful situations, and negative feelings and emotions, better.
What Is an Emotional Support Animal?
The use of service animals to help people with physical disabilities has become widely accepted, but their use for emotional support is still a gray area.
Service animals are officially recognized by the Americans With Disabilities Act and are afforded multiple benefits under the law, such as the right to enter restaurants and use public transportation.
Emotional support animals may not be specially trained (though some are), and are primarily there to provide comfort to someone with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another mental disability.
These “guide dogs for your mind” are given certain protections that regular pets are not, such as the right to live in housing that prohibits other pets, as well as fly with their owners (which requires a note from a health professional asserting the dog, or other emotional support animal, is involved in your treatment plan).
There is some controversy over the use of emotional support animals because some people have gamed the system simply to bring their pet along for the ride, but in cases where there is a valid medical issue, emotional support animals can be invaluable.
How Dogs May Boost Emotional and Mental Health
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) was discovered by Boris Levinson, a psychologist who back in the 1950s discovered purely by accident that his dog Jingles was able to engage an autistic child in a way humans had not.
Since the late 1970s, the Delta Society has been the most recognized name in the field of AAT. Dogs are the most frequently used therapy animals, but the Society also trains cats, birds, rabbits, horses, donkeys, llamas, pigs and even snakes in their program.
Research shows that such animals have much to offer to humans’ mental and emotional health. According to research published in Advances in Mind-Body Medicine journal:2
“Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been shown to be effective in the treatment of many psychological disorders, including autism spectrum disorders, depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). AAT can be used as an adjunct to other forms of psychotherapy.”
As part of a mental-health treatment plan, AAT has been found to:3
- Increase sense of comfort and safety
- Increase motivation
- Enhance self-esteem
- Increase pro-social behaviors
- Decrease behavioral problems
In another study, this time involving the use of horses in psychotherapy sessions for adolescents experiencing depression and/or anxiety, major improvements were noted, including increases in confidence, self-esteem and assertiveness and decreases in undesirable behaviors.4
PTSD Sufferers Experience 82 Percent Reduction in Symptoms
The presence of animals can have beneficial physical and emotional effects, from lowering blood pressure to bringing on a feeling of calm.
These benefits do not discriminate by age or malady; from elementary school students to hospital patients to war veterans to elderly patients living in nursing homes, AAT can lead to astonishing results.
For instance, some residents of nursing homes have a decreased need for medication when pets are a part of the environment. Pets also increase social interaction among nursing home residents.5
AAT has also shown remarkable promise in helping to heal trauma survivors, including those with PTSD. According to a report published in the Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work:6
“In one study of the effect of dogs with patients, psychologists noted an 82 [percent] reduction in symptoms. One particular case noted that interacting with the dog for as little as one week enabled a patient to decrease the amount of anxiety and sleep medications by half.”
Dogs Are Remarkably in Tune With Human Emotions
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that dogs offer humans emotional solace. They’ve been living with humans for centuries and they’ve developed a deep sense of understanding of human forms of communication.
For instance, dogs respond when a person cries. Many dogs approach crying people while displaying submissive behaviors, which suggests they’re showing the person empathy.
Simply gazing into your dog’s eyes can also trigger a flood of feel-good hormones, like the love hormone oxytocin. Research published in the journal Science revealed spikes of oxytocin are, in fact, triggered by mutual gazes between a dog and its owner.7
Pets can also pick up on your emotional state via cues in your voice and body language. They can tell when you’re happy or angry and may respond in suit. For many people, simply having a pet around their home yields significant emotional support. If, however, you or a family member is facing a specific issue like PTSD, autism, depression or anxiety, you may want to look into AAT programs in your area.