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Man’s Best Friend / Man’s Best Therapist?

Posted on: 18 May 2012 at 06:59 SAST

± minute read


The Beginning of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)

  I love the animals (two dogs and a parrot) in my family as much as I love the humans, some days more.  Recently a serious medical condition threatened the life of my Border Collie.  The thought of having to put my dog to sleep was pure agony.  Over the years I have endured the loss of two grandparents and three dogs - all equally painful.  As humans, we share a very special bond with animals, whether they be domestic, farm, or wild animals.  In the next few articles I would like to explore the relationship or bond between humans and animals as well as the benefits of animals in our lives.  I would like to invite you as a professional to share your insights or anecdotes about an animal enriching your life or being involved in facilitating a therapy session. In a recent magazine article, Hanekom (2012) tells the story of how Miss SA, Melinda Bam, was assisted through horse riding classes to regain self-confidence and a feeling of control over life after a series of traumatic events as a child. This is a testament to the healing power of a horse.  The article also illustrates many different programs in South Africa where animals are used to facilitate rehabilitation. Some are used in hospitals or even prison or just for companionship in homes for the elderly.  Animals are also used in movies to depict therapeutic roles one movie mentioned is The Green Mile. The notion of using animals in therapeutic settings is relatively new to the field of psychology.  However the importance of animals in our lives can be traced back to ancient Egyptian times.  Anubis, a dog-headed guide of the dead was regarded as an escort to humans from this world to the next. The city of Hardai become known as Cynopolis (City of Dogs) with many temples dedicated to Anubis.  It was believed being licked by a dog on those areas of the body containing sores or legions could help to heal the injury or cure the disease causing it.  This practice was picked up by the Greeks and temples dedicated to Asclepius, their god of medicine and healing often contained dogs trained to lick wounds.  The value of being licked by a dog is still believed in many cultures to have curative powers.  Recent research has shown that the dog’s saliva actually contains a number of antibacterial and antiviral compounds as well as some growth factors that may promote healing (Fine, 2010). Many anecdotes exist in which animals are said to improve emotional wellbeing.  In the late 1600’s, John Locke suggested that small pet animals aided in the social development of children, especially in the development of empathy.  In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale suggested that small pets relieved depression in patients. Smoky, the tiny Yorkshire terrier deserves special mention.  During World War II, Corporal William Wynne was recovering from wounds in an army hospital.  To cheer him up, his Smoky was brought to the hospital.  Corporal Wynne’s mood improved remarkably and Smoky had a positive effect on the other injured soldiers in the ward (Fine, 2010).  Smoky was not an ‘official’ war dog but served in the South Pacific with the 5th Air Force, 26th Photo Recon Squadron for two years.  Smoky was credited with twelve combat missions and awarded eight battle stars.  She survived 150 air raids on New Guinea and made it through a typhoon at Okinawa.  Smoky even jumped from a 30-foot tower with a specially made parachute. Wynne credited Smoky with saving his life by warning him of incoming shells.  Smoky’s biggest accomplishment was to run a telegraph wire through a 70 foot long pipe.  Smoky achieved this in minutes and it would have taken soldiers three days of digging and it would have made them vulnerable to enemy attack.  There are 6 memorials honouring Smoky throughout America.  According to an Animal Planet investigation, Smoky is the first therapy dog of record.  More information can be found on the Wikipedia web site (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoky_(dog)).  So many big achievements for such a little dog! In the early 1960’s, Boris Levinson, a psychotherapist considered to be the father of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), delivered a paper at an American Psychological Association (APA) meeting.  His suggestion that his dog aided in the therapy of a disturbed child was not positively received.  He claimed that the child remained non-communicative during therapy until Jingles was present in the therapy sessions.  According to Fritz (n.d), Dr Levinson concluded that the dog, although not offering a cure in itself, could be used as a social catalyst in the transition of the patient forming a relationship with the therapist through the dog. Freud himself noticed that some patients were more willing to talk openly when his Chinese chow, Jofi was in the room during psychotherapy sessions.  Freud claimed that the dog was there for his benefit as he felt more relaxed when Jofi was nearby.  According to Freud, children and adolescents were more willing to talk about painful issues with Jofi in the psychotherapy session.  Adults were also much less hostile during the ‘resistance phase’ when Jofi was present.  Freud further speculated that during free association, when the therapist sat outside of the patient’s view but Jofi was in their line of sight, Jofi provided the patient with a sense of safety and acceptance.  The dog appears unmoved by the patient’s verbalisations, which Freud concluded gave the patient a sense of reassurance when expressing painful or embarrassing moments (Fine, 2010).  Animals are non-judgemental, accepting and attentive, don’t talk back, criticise or give orders, provide people something to be responsible for, and offer a non-threatening outlet for physical contact (Burke, 1992 cited in Fine, 2010). Following the revelations about Freud and Jofi, the thought of utilising animals as facilitators during therapy enjoyed a more positive reception.  Psychiatrists Sam and Elizabeth Corson were two of the first to formally use dogs in their treatment procedures when they opened the first pet-assisted therapy program at a psychiatric unit at Ohio State University in 1977 (Fine, 2010). The ultimate validation of animal assisted therapy came from ecologist Alan Beck and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher.  They used direct psychological measures to show that when a person interacted with or even was simply in the presence of a friendly dog there were direct changes in their physiological responses.  Breathing became more regular, heart beat slowed, muscles relaxed and other psychological changes suggesting a lowering of sympathetic nervous system activity.  Since it is the sympathetic nervous system that responds to stress, this indicated that the dog was clearly reducing stress levels of people in its presence (Fine, 2010). Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) has become a therapeutic technique that facilitates the counselling process.  According to Pet Partners® (2012), formerly Delta Society, “AAT is a goal-oriented intervention directed at and /or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialised expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession.  AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functions.”. Another term frequently used is Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA), which can be defined as “the casual meet-and-greet activities that involve pets visiting people.  The same activity can be repeated with many people, unlike a therapy program that is tailored to a particular person or medical condition” (Pet Partners, 2012). ().  The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defines the concepts similarly (www.avma.org.) The AVMA (2011) provides the following benefits of AAT and AAA: Animals provide emotional and physical health benefits for diverse human populations, including the elderly, children, physically disabled, deaf, blind, emotionally or physically ill, and the incarcerated.  Animals can be included in behaviour modification programs as a source of support and diversion during threatening situations, such as counselling.  With proper training, animals can be taught to reinforce rehabilitative behaviours in patients such as throwing a ball, walking, or verbal responses. Many programs exist today in which animals are brought to the therapist’s office, hospitals, and homes for the elderly.  There are also rehabilitation programs in which dogs are brought in as companions to build morale and confidence and the use of animals in educational settings. In the next article I set out to describe the human-animal bond. References: Beck, M. (2010). Beside Freud's couch, a chow named Jofi. Retrieved May 4, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703886904576031630124087362.html Fine, A. H. (2010). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice (3rd Ed.). Retrieved May 2, 2012 from the World Wide Web:  http://books.google.co.za/books?id=2PruqyaDw6wC&printsec=frontcover&dq=handbook+of+animal+assisted+therapy&hl=en&sa=X&ei=c3CqT-atKMXMhAe9v_nNAg&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=handbook%20of%20animal%20assisted%20therapy&f=false Fritz, H.B. (n.d). History of therapy dogs: International history of therapy dogs. Retrieved May 4, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://www.pawsforpeople.co.za/index.htm Hanekom, M. (2012, April 29). Warmte en Troos. my tyd, p14 Pet Partners. (2012). What are animal-assisted activities/therapy? Retrieved May 11, 2012 from Photo Credit: emdot via Compfight cc

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