I walk into the waiting room to greet my client. She is an 8 year old girl, described as highly oppositional and angry.
She is accompanied by her mother, understandably appearing both exhausted and exasperated. As I approach, this young girl’s eyes light up, a smile beams across her face. The joy is contagious and her mum smiles too. Is it my magical abilities as a clinical psychologist to bring instant happiness to children and families in distress? Perhaps…but more likely is that scampering along beside me is my loyal and eager assistant, Tezi, an 18-month old groodle (golden retriever/poodle X) and therapy dog in training.
There has been a great deal of research into the health benefits of spending time with dogs. Science shows that animal assisted therapy can reduce our cortisol (stress hormone) levels and lower blood pressure, while increasing oxytocin (the “feel good” hormone). Dogs in schools have been shown to improve student motivation and engagement, enhance social skills and reduce anxiety. Soldiers with PTSD have benefited from therapeutic relationships with dogs. Heart-warming stories exist of dogs being introduced into prison environments and creating lifechanging bonds with the most “hardened criminals.” In the therapy environment, a dog can help our clients feel calmer, more able to open up about their difficulties, be more engaged in the process and therefore improve outcomes.
How can dogs manage to achieve all this? I believe that, quite simply, dogs do not judge. The relationship is not complicated by subtle social nuances, words, or expectations. Perhaps in today’s fast paced, social media-obsessed, image-based society, that is just what we need! Unconditional positive regard, we psychologists call it, but our canine friends do this quite instinctively.
Animal assisted therapy certainly seems to be gaining momentum in Australia. I am aware of at least two Adelaide hospitals who are regularly bringing in therapy dogs to improve patient wellbeing in certain areas of clinical care such as eating disorders and oncology. Unley Council recently sponsored several dogs to undergo specialised training to enable chosen dogs and handlers to provide emotional support to various aged care facilities.
And if dogs are not your thing, emotional support animals can include any domesticated animal that meet certain criteria. Overseas, they have been known to include mini pigs, ferrets, and rats.
At ThinkWise, I think we will stick with Tezi, the groodle, for the meantime!
[Written by Dr Donna Hosford for ThinkWise]