Unconditional love is incredibly healing, but not so easy to find. What comes first to your mind when you hear this term? A parent, a caregiver, a special moment in your life? The image that pops up in your mind is surely related to a non-judgemental figure or moment when you felt fully accepted and loved.
That image could also be a pet! Scientists have been publishing studies showing that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a proven antidote to anxiety and depression. Owning a pet can help with your well-being – you live longer, healthier, and happier. Pets also soothe the emotional pain of individuals suffering from dementia as well as children with autism.
They teach kids how to be responsible and caring. Their companionship for the elders is of tremendous value. That’s why it’s very common for people to pamper their pet and buy them different food and toys, even if their budget isn’t too high.
A bit of history
It all started with the ancient Greeks when horses used to lift severely ill people’s spirits. It seems that pets were first used for therapeutic purposes in Belgium in the Middle Ages. Disabled people working on a farm were assisted by farm animals for their treatment.
In 1772 in England, a psychologist decided to use animals to help his patients with mental illness. The very first use of dogs in hospitals dates back to 1919 in Washington, in order to treat depression and schizophrenia in the aftermath of WWI.
In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale, better known for being the founder of modern nursing, used to recommend small animals to her patients so that they could feel loved and get companionship. It stemmed from an experience she had with a sheepdog she cured when she was only 17.
The poor dog had been injured by kids who had thrown stones at him. His owner, the shepherd, thought the dog was severely wounded and was about to put him to death when Florence Nightingale asked him to postpone his decision. The leg of the dog was bruised, not broken, she was thus able to save him! And that was the start of her now well-known career as a nurse.
Sigmund Freud would also use his dog in his clinical practice. Freud believed his dog Jofi could read people’s emotional states and was thus a good judge of character. He noticed that Jofi had a calming effect on his patients. Jofi had another stunning skill, she could alert Freud when the sessions were over! She would get up and head for the door. That was pretty clear to all.
In the 60s, Dr Boris Levinson found out that one of his mentally impaired patients accidentally left alone with his dog Jingles started to interact with the dog. He thus realised the positive effects of dogs on mentally impaired patients – how they could ease off their defence mechanisms. He then developed the theory of ‘pet-oriented child psychotherapy‘.
Dr Samuel Corson also accidentally realised the beneficial effects of the dogs he was doing research with when a severely withdrawn patient of his asked to see them. After the agreed visit to the kennel, a major breakthrough occurred, the child became way more communicative!
In 1977 in the US, the Delta Foundation, a non-profit organisation, was formed by a few veterinary doctors and a psychiatrist (the Delta Society in 1981 and Pet Partners since 2012). Pet owners, volunteers, mental health professionals and veterinary doctors soon joined together to raise awareness about animal therapy in order to improve the health, independence and well-being of individuals and patients.
Benefits of animal-assisted therapy
It is said that AAT or pet therapy is truly beneficial in four areas: autism, medical issues, behavioural issues, and emotional well-being
Researchers state that the settings where the interaction takes place play a major role too. If the individual is just observing the animal, it drastically reduces stress levels, a positive impact on psychological health and physiological responses. If the individual is touching or playing with the animal, it leads to psychosocial benefits.
In 2003, licensed psychologist Dr Aubrey Fine suggested a list of areas where AAT has been used effectively:
- Prisons and juvenile homes
- Victims of abuse and sexual abuse
- Centres for people with developmental disabilities
- Hospital programs for patients with HIV
- Palliative care programmes at home
- Centres and projects for older people
Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) offers an added-value – it necessarily brings people outdoors. Patients may thus be able to use all their senses while going through their emotional challenges. It could be seen as more welcoming or actually less intimidating than the usual talk therapy office.
Of course, conventional talk therapies are still necessary but AAT or EAP can also be of great value in my opinion. Thanks to EAP, individuals of all ages can work on issues such as emotional awareness, assertiveness, confidence, self-confidence, trust, empathy and problem-solving skills.
I guess you have all heard of Peyo, the horse that is allowed to visit hospitals and retirement homes in Dijon, France, twice a month. This full-sized horse gives some extra love and care to the patients, who are totally fond of him. He is given free rein to go where he wants to and he intuitively knows where people need him most. The results on dying patients, or severely sick, are spectacular – those who don’t want to speak start to interact and talk, those who don’t want to walk start to get up, those who behave angrily start to calm down.
As an owner of a cat myself and dogs (and horses) in the past, I truly believe that animals have a very positive impact on individuals, families, and kids in general. Several studies have shown that owning a pet has a soothing effect and helps socialising. Donald Altschiller describes various events in his books where children labeled as ‘severely disturbed’ or ‘uncommunicative’ responded positively to the presence of animals.
AAT & EAP and actually any interactions with animals can be of great benefit to physical and cognitive rehabilitation. This form of therapies also offers greater independence to people with physical disabilities that could be neuromuscular or brain-related.
It is now known that horses, dogs, cats, donkeys and even dolphins are very beneficial for people suffering from cerebral palsy, autism and learning disability, among others. I believe AAT can be used along with talk and cognitive therapies in many cases.
If you are interested in learning more about emotions, the attachment theory, and the impact of the environment on our brain and emotions, visit Polychromatic Life Design.
Margareth Van Steenlandt is a certified counsellor, personal development and business coach.