Here in the UK we have a reputation as being a nation of animal lovers, and the statistics certainly support the idea that we’re fond of keeping pets. It’s been estimated that nearly half of households own a pet, and that there are over 27 million in the UK – including more than 7 million dogs. How about therapy dogs and a history of canine companionship?
A recent survey by a social networking website revealed further intriguing details about UK owners’ relationships with their pets. One fifth of respondents said they had cancelled social plans so that they could spend time with a pet, a quarter said their pet was like a child to them, and half admitted that when they felt low they preferred to hug their pet than a close relative![i]
That humans take comfort in the company of pets should be unsurprising, because the therapeutic benefits of interaction with animals have been recognised for a long time. Animals have helped provide therapeutic relief to the infirm and ill for centuries – records from back in the late 1700s describe how Quakers in England used them to help those suffering from mental illness. The Quakers ran a retreat for the mentally ill, and believed that interaction with animals helped to “enhance the humanity of the emotionally ill” patients in their care.[ii]
Dogs have been particularly effective at raising the spirits of those recuperating from illness. A touching example comes from the Second World War, when a female Yorkshire Terrier named Smoky became one of the first working therapy dogs. After being rescued from a battlefield in New Guinea, Smoky passed into the hands of a Corporal named William Wynne. When Wynne was unfortunately hospitalised after falling ill with a jungle disease, his pals took the little dog on a visit to see him in an attempt to cheer him up. Smoky became so popular with the other patients that the hospital allowed her to go on rounds, and she worked for 12 years both during and after the war as a therapy dog![iii]
In the 1970s dogs began to be used in a more systematic way to provide relief to those recovering in hospital. A nurse from the United States named Elaine Smith, who at the time was working in England, noticed that the presence of the hospital chaplain’s Golden Retriever had a positive effect on patients. When she returned home in 1976 Smith continued to work with dogs, and actually founded the first national register of therapy dogs in the US. Therapy Dogs International initially enlisted the help of six canines, and by 2012 had massively expanded and nearly 25,000 dogs were registered with the organisation.[iv]
An organisation called Pets As Therapy plays a similar role in the United Kingdom. They are the biggest charity in the UK providing therapy animals to hospitals, hospices, care homes, and special needs schools, and in its 30 years existence PAT has worked with over 20,000 dogs. 4500 dogs are currently visiting more than 130,000 hospital patients and care home residents every week. Dogs are specially chosen for their friendly nature and calm temperament, and owners who would like their own animal to become a therapy dog are invited to send an application to PAT.[v]
Interaction with a therapy dog can help lift a person’s mood – for which there are real physiological explanations. Studies have shown that when we stroke a pet such as a cat or dog, both our blood pressure and heart rate decreases – which is beneficial for people who suffer from stress. Other beneficial physiological changes can take place during contact with a therapy dog – neurotransmitters and hormones that improve mood are released by the body. Dopamine is one such neurotransmitter, as well as the hormone oxytocin – serotonin may also be boosted, and endorphins released. These can all promote a feeling of well-being and contribute to improved health.[vi]
In addition to the therapeutic effects enjoyed by the ill and infirm, therapy dogs too enjoy the attention and affection they receive from the patients and care home residents they visit – so everyone benefits from such interaction!
Brit Peacock is an animal lover who writes about the ways in which pets can help in recovery from ill health and personal injury.