National Therapy Animal Day: Bring in The Dogs! by Dr. Carla Pulliam

National Therapy Animal Day: Bring in The Dogs! by Dr. Carla Pulliam

As a result of Pet Partner’s advocacy, communities from 32 states have issued proclamations designating today (April 30th) National Therapy Animal Day. Pet Partners’ mission is “to improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond”. They are the national leaders in registering, demonstrating and promoting the benefits of animal-assisted therapies, activities, and education.

Today I want to celebrate Alamo and Milo, the Chrysalis therapy dogs, and to provide some information on the fabulous ways animals help people heal through certified animal-assisted programming.

Alamo and Milo
Dr. Dodd and I always planned to incorporate animal-assisted therapy as part of the multi-faceted and multi-modal approach to wellness we offer at Chrysalis. Without coordinating and initially unbeknownst to each other, we both began researching dogs and brought puppies home of the same age and in the same month! Following extensive training, we each achieved Pet Partner certification with our dogs.

Dr. Dodd’s dog, Alamo, is a friendly, happy and engaging Labrador retriever.
Milo, my shepherd mix, was rescued and fostered through Dallas Dog RRR (Rescue, Rehab, Reform). Milo has a calm, silly personality. Link to our website for pictures of Alamo and Milo.

Below I state the facts and science of animal-assisted therapy. But know that there is something magical and undefinable about having the dogs in the room. People imagine the dogs are thinking all kinds of things, which enriches the work tremendously. The dogs provide nurture, comfort and whimsy to those who interact with them. For those who don’t care for dogs or have allergies, the dogs contentedly stay in their in-office crates during session.

Therapy animals have a long history in psychotherapeutic and emotional work. As early as 1792, animals were used on the grounds of York Retreat in England to bring pleasure and elicit caregiving in the patients. Animals were first used in concerted human-animal interaction for emotional therapy at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. in 1919. Even Freud himself was well known for the presence of his dogs in this therapy room. His chow Jofi was credited with a nearly perfect sense of time, prone to getting up and wandering right at the end of therapy hour, signaling to all that the session was over (Pellegrini, 2009). Other organizations in New York (Green Chimneys), Ohio (Samuel Corson and Elizabeth O’Leary Corson, Lima State Hospital) discovered the benefits of allowing patients to interact with animals. Various organizations have sprung up over the years to study human-animal interaction and to credential animal assisted therapy teams (Chandler, 2017).

Animal-Assisted Therapy, Animal-Assisted Activity, Emotional Support Animal, Service Animal
Chandler (2017) provides a cogent description of the differences in the above designations, which are frequently confused. Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is to be distinguished from Animal-Assisted Activity (AAA), the former “strategically incorporating human-animal interactions into a formal therapeutic process” (p. 4), while the latter (AAA) involves mostly social or educational visits with an animal. AAA and AAT animals and handlers must both be screened and trained. AAT teams, however, involve a credentialed therapist working towards specific goals in the context of a particular therapeutic setting. Interventions tend to be goal directed and have evaluated outcomes. They are guided by the credentialed therapist.

Both AAA and AAT are to be distinguished from “Emotional Support Animals” (ESA), a term defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which can be assigned to a personal pet with a letter from a health or mental health provider while a person is under their care for a physical or psychiatric disability. An ESA does not have legal rights to accompany someone outside of the home or to other facilities. Rather, it confers the right for an individual to have their pet live with them at no financial penalty or in housing that wouldn’t otherwise allow pets. Lastly, a Service or Disability Assistance Animal is specially trained to assist a person with a disability and by law must be allowed to enter any facility. The Service Animal has legal protection for unimpeded access (Chandler, 2017).

Neurobiological Underpinnings
Chandler (2017) also describes multiple ways that humans and animals connect neurobiologically. While not as strong as the social connection formed between a pet and its owner, the relationship between a therapy animal and a client nevertheless relies on hard wired brain and bodily processes related to attachment and bonding. Dog/human interactions result in increased levels of oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine in both parties within a few minutes of positive interaction (Odendaal, 2000; Odendaal and Meintjes, 2003), with levels of oxytocin increasing more in women than in men (Miller, et al., 2009). These hormones have various and positive effects on things like seeking, mood, pleasure, social bonding and stress reduction. Mirror neurons likely play a role in the positive experience of engaging with a socially calm and welcoming animal. Mirror neurons “allow humans to have a vicarious experience from observations of other social beings . . . a person smiling in response to seeing a happy dog wagging its tail . . . So, just from observation of other humans or animals, mirror neurons in humans can stimulate activation of the social response system or stress response system in a human, and the hormonal releases that accompany activation of those systems” (p 11).

Extensive review of outcome research is beyond the scope of this post, and many more experimental studies are needed. Generally speaking, a variety of research supports the psychophysiological and psychosocial benefit of AAT. Refer to Chandler (2017) for research in the efficacy of AAT in many areas, including psychophysiological health, anxiety and distress, dementia, depression, emotion regulation and emotion recognition, motivation, self-esteem enhancement, children with developmental disorders, emotional and behavioral problems, trauma, the elderly, physical disabilities, substance abuse and psychiatric patients.

There is much more I could say about engaging with our furry animals and with animal-assisted interventions generally. I’m grateful to Alamo and Milo for the ways they enrich our work and share their special spirits with our patients- each bringing unique and adorable opportunities for interaction.

Thanks for reading- please feel free to reach out with questions. We’re thrilled to offer this intervention at Chrysalis and would be glad to talk about it more.

Warmly, and with all best wishes for a happy spring,
Dr. Pulliam

Chandler, C. K. (2017). Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge

Miller, S. C., Kennedy, K., Devoe, D., Hickey, M., Nelson, T., and Kogan, L. (2009). Oxytocin levels in men and women before and after interaction with a bonded dog. Anthrozoos, 22(1), 31-42.

Odendaal, J. S. J. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy-magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49 (4), 275-280.

Odendaal, J. S., and Meintjes, R. A. (2003) Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behavior between humans and dogs. The Veterinary Journal, 165(3), 296-301.

Pellegrini, A. (2009). The Dogs of War and Dogs at Home: Thresholds of Loss. American Imago, 66(2), 231-251.