Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Personal Health Animals offer a variety of health benefits according to the 2002 educational summit PAWSitive InterAction. The 2002 summit was held to promote and celebrate the positive impact of the human-animal bond. Presenter Dr. Alan Beck (2002) suggested animals encourage touch, stimulate conversation, encourage laughter and social interaction which in turn benefit the individual’s sense of well being (PAWSitive InterAction, 2002). Becker and Morton (2002) believed, “Our animal companions can detect the low mood of illness, the need for play and distraction from our woes” (p. 98). Dr. Edward Creagan, oncologist at the world renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota was so convinced by the beneficial effects of pets that he prescribed them to one-third of his cancer patients (Cukan, 2002). After many years of theorizing the beneficial effects that animals have on human health, research is now available to back up these theories. In a study by researcher Rebecca Johnson, professor of nursing and veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia, it was found that levels of serotonin–a hormone that fights depression–are elevated as a result of petting a dog. Johnson also found that petting a robotic dog had the opposite effect (Warner, 2004). Johnson stated, “By showing this benefit, we can help pet-assisted therapy become a medically accepted intervention that might be prescribed to patients” (Warner, 2004, p. 1). Furthermore, a study conducted by PAWSitive InterAction concluded that pet owners had lower levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and lower blood pressure (Duke, 2003). Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Psychological Health A wealth of research exists documenting the psychological benefits of animal companions (PAWSitive InterAction, 2003). Dogs have been shown to provide chemical therapeutic benefits to their owners (American Heart Association, 2005; Becker & Morton, 2002; Duke, 2003; PAWSitive InterAction, 2003; Warner, 2004). Specifically, test results showed a significant release of the beneficial hormones prolactin, oxytocin and phenylethylamine shortly after petting in both humans and dogs. The American Heart Association (2005) studied dogs’ effects on the variables that identify individuals with heart failure and found that anxiety scores dropped 24 percent for those patients who received visits from a dog. “What experimental studies don’t reveal is the powerful, qualitative impact of the human-animal interaction on a single individual; numbers alone cannot measure these feelings or capture adequately the visible calming of agitated patients in the presence of a dog” (PAWSitvive InterAction, 2003, p. 6). Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Social and Emotional Health In their book The Healing Power of Pets, Becker and Morton (2002) stated, “At residential facilities where children are recovering from a lifetime of abuse and neglect, animals can be a vital therapeutic tool that can serve as a catalyst for growth and change” (p. 52). Providing emotional support to human companions comes naturally to dogs. They provide unconditional acceptance, are “nonjudgmental, and can enhance the child’s sense of self-esteem and promote the expression of feelings” (Reichert, 1998, p. 177). Levinson (1969) was the first to provide empirical evidence for the “social lubricant” function that dogs provide. This evidence is based on the natural tendency for children and others to open up in the calm presence of a dog. Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem One of the common mental health treatment goals in animal-assisted therapy (as cited by JAASEP Winter 2008 | 30 Chandler, 2001, and the Delta Society, n.d.) is to improve self-esteem. Bergensen (1989), as cited by the Delta Society (n.d.), believed that owning a pet enhanced the self-esteem of a child. Reichert (1998) and Scott (2003) also found that animal-assisted therapy was successful in increasing self-esteem. Additional evidence for the improvement of a student’s self-esteem was found in a study conducted at an elementary school in Salt Lake City, Utah. The study’s primary objective was to measure the effects of animal-assisted therapy on students’ reading skills. Researchers found that in addition to increased reading fluency, teachers reported that students’ self-esteem and self-confidence had also improved (Gerben, 2003).
Animal-Assisted Therapy in Reading Programs Two programs that currently exist in various classrooms and libraries are: Dogs in Education Assisting with Literacy (DEAL), established to work with children who receive special education services in the Albuquerque area, and Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ), a literacy program developed to improve children’s reading fluency levels. Both programs showed dramatic improvement in reading skills (Gerben, 2003; Scott, 2003). Scott (2003) explained, “The ability of an animal to spark the engagement of an individual and get that person involved with reading truly is amazing” (p. 8). Radcliffe (2006) reported local results of the READ program in the Houston Area. Dogs made weekly visits to struggling readers. Radcliffe noted that the participants felt the dogs were nonjudgmental. The dogs reduced anxiety and nervousness and made reading enjoyable. Nebbe (2003) author of Animal-Assisted Activities/Therapy as an Animal and Human Welfare Project, believed that animals show great promise in the classroom, not only for help in reading but in all areas. Animal-Assisted Therapy in The Classroom In a study conducted by Purdue University’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond, nearly two thousand elementary school teachers were surveyed. The results showed that more than onefourth of classrooms had animals with the purpose of motivation and life-skills training (Purdue, 2000). Jalongo et al. (2004) who wrote Canine Vistiors: The Influence of Therapy Dogs on Young Children’s Learning and Well-Being in Classrooms and Hospitals, discussed the benefits of Therapy Dogs International, an organization on the East Coast which trains therapy dogs. The human-animal teams which make up Therapy Dogs International travel to schools, nursing homes, and hospitals to provide educational and therapeutic services. The teams recently visited an elementary school in Pennsylvania where they shared stories about the dogs. They included important social skills messages, including why each dog was selected; one was a shelter dog and one an unsuccessful guard dog. “It sends the message that animals, like people, are individuals and can be terribly misjudged” (Jalongo et al., 2004, p. 14). As the teams concluded their presentations, they invited the children to pet the dogs. While the students interacted with the dogs, the trainers noted that the children talked to the dogs, offered comments about their own pets, and enthusiastically interacted with peers, teachers, and presenters. “Animals are living demonstrations of diverse ways of eating, reproducing, communicating and perceiving–some similar to, others different from–human behavior” (Melson, 2001, p. 76). Furthermore, Morgan (2001), a special education teacher, wrote Animals as Teachers after witnessing the benefits of incorporating animals into her classroom. The dogs assisted in teaching proper classroom behaviors such as patience and following directions, and brought inspiration and excitement to learning. Morgan also believed the dogs were able to teach the children in ways that she was not able, and was able to make stronger, faster connections with her students. Melson (2001) wrote, “the most effective teaching, even for teens and young adults, JAASEP Winter 2008 | 31 engages all the senses” (p. 79). In answer to her own question regarding the use of animalassisted therapy beyond working with young children, Melson continued, “animals presence–in homes, schools, and elsewhere–should continue to enrich the ways children and adolescents learn” (p. 80). Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Favorable documentation for the use of animal-assisted therapy in counseling was not available until Boris Levinson, a pioneer in child therapy, wrote the 1969 classic Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy. In his book, Levinson described how the presence of a friendly dog in a therapy session helped create a safe and nurturing environment for withdrawn children (Levinson, 1969). “Since that time, animal-assisted therapy has been implemented worldwide and has been shown to be effective in many therapy programs” (Wilson, n.d., p. 2). Today therapists find that animals make suitable targets for the real objects of a child’s rage, fear and need. Melson (2001) reported that, “animals are the repositories of feelings that, if directed toward authority figures like mother or father, would be unacceptable” (p. 148). Chandler (2001) also noted, “The presence of the animal can facilitate a trust-building bond between the therapist and client. The animal relieves some tension and anxiety of therapy and interacting with the animals is entertaining and fun” (p. 2). Chandler believed it was easier for the child to talk to the animal about more difficult issues while the therapist listened, and sharing their feelings with the animals brought about emotional sharing with the therapist directly. Melson (2001) agrees, “the animal connection then becomes the stepping stone to rebuilding ties to humans” (p. 101). Animal-Assisted Therapy in Residential and Correctional Facilities “At residential facilities where children are recovering from a lifetime of abuse and neglect, animals can be a vital therapeutic tool that can serve as a catalyst for growth and change” (Becker & Morton, 2002, p. 52). A counselor at Green Chimneys, a residential facility for abused children, described the interaction between children and animals as providing the healthy physical touch that all humans need. The counselor noted the qualities of animals as “always available, all understanding, sensitive to each feeling, a warm enveloping soft presence” (Melson, 2001, p. 103). Dalton (2001), Thigpen et al. (2005) and Wilson, (n.d.), all discussed the beneficial placement of troubled youth at Green Chimneys, as well as how animals provided a comforting escape for children. They also reported that children would confide in the animals because they knew they would not be judged. The children learned to trust animals and would eventually transfer that trust to humans. This bond between animals and people and the benefits have been explored by Dr. Alan Beck, a pioneer in the field of the human-animal bond and presenter at the Think Positive educational summit in 2002. One of the many health effects of animal companionship Beck listed was that pets would give attention to people who otherwise may not receive it (PAWSitive InterAction, 2002). Animal-Assisted Therapy in Emotional Emergencies Terrorism and school violence have required the support of therapy dogs in a new and important therapeutic modality. Therapy dog owners and those involved in helping the victims, survivors, and emergency workers cope with the stress of a traumatic experience know the benefits that therapy dogs can provide. A police officer on the scene of the World Trade Center tragedy in 2001 explained, “People seem to viscerally feel the assistance, comfort, and emotional support that the dogs give” (Crawford & Pomerinke, 2003, p. 26). Therapy dogs were also present to provide support following the Thurston and Columbine High School shootings in 1998 and 1999, respectively. The dogs “enabled the counselors to interact with many more students than would normally be the case” (Chandler, 2001 p. 2). JAASEP Winter 2008 | 32 Animal-Assisted Therapy in Hospitals Animal-assisted therapy has grown in recognition as an adjunct to traditional medical treatments. “Therapy dogs are a daily sight in health care programs for children in the United States” (Jalongo et al. 2004, p. 12). The American Heart Association, 2005; Cukan, 2002; McKeonCharkalis, 2005) reported positive therapeutic benefits after patients were exposed to animalassisted therapy. In a study conducted by UCLA Medical Center, therapy dogs helped lower stress and anxiety in patients. Researchers also documented improved heart and lung function (McKeon-Charkalis, 2005). Furthermore, Dr. Burgess, a physician at the University of Washington Pain Center states: By initiating and maintaining the relaxation response, pets can take people’s focus off of their pain and elevate their moods. Secondly, through touch or physical contact, they can block the transmission of their pain from the periphery to the central nervous system, shutting the pain processing centers down (Becker & Morton, 2002, p. 106). Animal-Assisted Therapy and Emotional/Behavioral Disorders “Children with emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD) are arguably one of the highest at-risk groups for dropping out before graduating high school” (Thigpen et al., 2005, p.1). Students with emotional/behavioral disorders require Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), which outline goals for the treatment and management of their behaviors and social skills. Kogan et al. (1999) stated that therapy for children identified with emotional/behavioral disorders is time consuming, and services are incomplete and inadequate. The professional teams assigned to treat these students are typically overwhelmed by the evaluation responsibilities and are unable to dedicate the time needed for therapy or counseling. Kogan et al. (1999) declared “animal-assisted therapy is a promising potential resource that could meet some of the needs of emotionally disturbed children and place a valuable new tool in the hands of therapists and EBD teachers” (p. 106). Furthermore, Thigpen et al. (2005) noted “animals can provide direct and active teaching. Additionally, they give feedback about the student’s behavior by the manner in which they react to him or her” (p. 9). Kogan et al. (1999) reported the benefits of animal-assisted therapy in a study that involved dogs trained by boys with emotional/behavioral disorders. The training was developed as part of the boys’ Individual Education Plans. After interventions involving the dogs, the boys demonstrated: x A decrease in negative comments x An increased use of praise and positive comments x A decrease in distractibility x Improved relationships with peers x An increased amount of eye contact with people x An increase in appropriateness of voice tone with people x A decrease in learned helplessness x An increased sense of control over self and environment x A decrease in pouting and tantrums x An improvement in affective reactivity as indicated by facial expression and gestures x An increase in age-appropriate behavior