Many years ago, my therapist friend, Anita, agreed to take care of my dog, Dexter, while my husband and I went on a trip. Anita had a great idea. Instead of leaving Dexter home while she saw her patients, she had asked each how they would feel about having a dog in the room during the session and all agreed to the plan.
Dexter was happy to soothe and comfort when needed, to look attentively at the patient as he or she spoke, to lean comfortingly against the patient’s legs, or even, if invited, jump up on the couch and snuggle up tight, making difficult conversations easier. He was the kindest, most gentle dog I ever met, and in fact a year later he became my first service dog. I like to remember that he changed some lives for the better in a small way before he changed mine for the better in a huge way.
Either way, big job or small, dogs love to work. What Dexter did for Anita’s patients and then for me was not unusual. Dogs have a long history of helping humans. Years and years ago, when humans and dogs became best friends, each did for the other whatever he could to make life better. At first, dogs helped with the hunt and were given a share of the food. As we changed, they did, too, delivering downed ducks to hand, bringing in the flock, finding a child lost in the woods, alerting their partners to impending seizures, detecting low blood sugar, and helping some children with autism to communicate.
From the time their species first joined their lives with ours, dogs have adapted themselves to an amazing variety of human needs, including a history in therapeutic situations. They visit people who are institutionalized, comfort patients in hospitals, work alongside veterans and civilians with post-traumatic stress disorder, and act as a social lubricant in therapeutic situations.
Sigmund Freud gave his patients a little extra that some of them needed, something to warm up the process and make them feel more comfortable. His beloved Chow, Jofi, was in the room when patients arrived.
It’s possible that in addition to making Freud’s patients less fearful and more comfortable that Jofi helped his master as well. Freud’s life was stressful, in part because of the struggle to have his ideas accepted and later because of the need to flee Vienna, the tragic loss of family members during the Nazi regime, and his own poor health. Surely the presence of his beloved dog must have helped the therapist as well as the patients.
Since Freud, other therapists have found that having a dog present can smooth the process of therapy, signaling trust and warmth, and allowing patients to open up more freely.
“I’ve observed this personally,” Stanford M. Singer, Ph.D., a New York City psychotherapist told me. “A couple of patients have brought their dogs to sessions. Research shows a connection between petting a dog and the release of prolactin and oxytocin, the so-called ‘feel good’ hormones, as well as endorphins, the body’s natural pain-relievers,” he added.
Just the presence of a dog can signal a safe environment, making conversation more likely. This is useful, as it was in Freud’s office, because both patient and therapist may have strong feelings about a particular topic or interchange and the presence of a dog can smooth the process on both sides. “I find that I often spend more time petting the dog than the patient does,” Dr. Singer says. “I find the presence of a dog to be positive.”
As we have taken care of dogs, they have done the same favor for us, even helping when circumstances are overwhelming and we find ourselves needing the help of a sympathetic, professional. While the psychotherapist will make us feel comfortable, win our trust, and be nonjudgmental, confidential, understanding, and helpful, all the better if there is a dog in the room, too, a being who, without words, knows how we are feeling and knows how to make us feel both better and safer.
But what about all the dogs who ease the therapeutic process? What’s in it for them? When they help us to relax or feel less fearful, they are getting the very benefits they give us–lower blood pressure, less pain, a happier, safer demeanor, as well as a feeling of satisfaction from a job well done. As it was for Freud’s Chow, other dogs, too, know that having a helpful, steady job is a wonderful thing.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.