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True Animal Rescue – How Pets Save Us

True Animal Rescue – How Pets Save Us

What is it about the wagging tail of a dog or the purr of a cat that makes us feel so calm, so safe, so present?   I’ve been working with rescue dogs in my practice for quite a number of years and more than a few clients have said, “I came to see you for psychotherapy because you work with dogs.”   I remember one patient who came in and said, “Y’know I didn’t know you from beans, but I figured, how bad could you be if you rescued two dogs?”     Another young man was so traumatized by abuse that he held onto one of the dogs and cried for two months. He could not yet tolerate the vagaries of human relationship, but he could let the dog love him. And through that a bridge was formed back to life.  

Animal-Human Bonding

One of the major sources of disease is the stress of loneliness and isolation. Even in the midst of a crowd, we can feel alone, anxious, disconnected.  As a result, one of the essential elements to healing is connectedness. A physician without empathy, compassion, and love isn’t doing even half her job. So the question becomes, do animals feel? More specifically, do they feel with us and like us?   The evidence seems to suggest they do. When my patients cry, my dogs go over, nuzzling them with their snouts, licking away their tears, looking for ways to soothe them and make them feel better.  Anyone with pets has seen the same thing. They know when we’re angry, when we’re afraid, when we’re sad, when we’re angry. And the only way they could know would be to have similar emotional states themselves. The data has been mounting that not only do animals enjoy play for the pure “fun” of it, but many (particularly primates) grieve in much the same way we do, miss us when we are gone, and have the power of anticipation.   

The Field of Pet Therapy

Something about animals-not just cats and dogs, but horses, dolphins, birds, geese, mice and rabbits-helps us to heal. It is not simply a sentimental fantasy. It’s science.   Aaron Katcher MD and Patricia Gonser PhD are currently engaged in research that suggests that animals can have a positive effect on people’s mental health. I know one fellow, a 55-year old teacher who was going through a terrible spot with his adolescent son, who eventually needed hospitalization.  He had also suffered from depression off and on through his life. And he said, in no uncertain terms, that if he had not had his dog, he would have lost his mind or left his home.   In the Ohio Reformatory for Women, Susan Kestella is the Director of a pet therapy and wildlife rehab program. They started with wildlife rehabilitation as a way of helping the community (because it is such time-consuming work, few people can or will do it) but it turned out to be much, much more. The inmates became intensely involved, developing exquisite rapports with the animals as well as with each other, building self-respect, skills, and resources they weren’t aware they had. What they found was that the disabled pets that they could never release and had to keep in the prison, were able to help not only the inmates who worked with them, but dozens of other low-functioning or disabled inmates. They found that the simple act of holding the rabbits on their laps calmed the women and changed the environment in the prison itself.  

Pet Therapy Options  

There are a few ways that this therapy is conducted.  

1. A clinician can suggest that a client (if it is appropriate, safe and useful for both patient AND animal) get a pet to have at home. We would not pair a high-maintenance animal with someone who goes in and out of psychotic episodes, primarily because it would not be safe for the animal.         

2. A clinician can have an animal in the office setting as a safety zone, which is not the same as animal-assisted therapy (see below).         

3. Animal-assisted activities may be used when trained volunteers and pets visit individuals or groups at prisons, nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals and children’s wards of hospitals.         

4. In animal-assisted therapy, therapists and trained volunteers use the pets in therapy sessions to help patients accomplish certain therapeutic objectives (build self-esteem, stay focused, access traumatic memories).  For instance, having children learn to ride a horse, touch a dolphin and swim, care for a lizard.   Animal-assisted therapy seems to work particularly well with those who have difficulties with communication-autistic children and elderly patients with alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Also, it seems to work with those who have been hurt or abused by humans, with the animal gently reconnecting them to the world.  

5. Psychiatric service dogs are used to perform specific tasks and help to ameliorate certain symptoms of the person’s disease, e.g., get medication at a specific time or alert them to an impending panic attack and lead them to a safe place. These dogs are also used for general medical conditions, such as cardiac care, physical handicaps, etc….  

Some Science Behind the Magic  

How does this work? Those researchers who study emotion and neurology are in agreement about certain major points, one of them being that Emotions Communicate. Even without words, the positive or negative emotional expression of one person will tend to produce a positive or negative emotion in another.

Most emotion is centered in the hypothalamus, thalamus and limbic system (amygdalar, septal and thalamocingulate). This is the Papez circuit. The emotions that come from there are most primal-fear, anger, sexuality, hunger, goal-directed (avoidance of pain). The higher level emotions such as love, compassion, etc…need to be mediated by the cerebral cortex. The hypothalamus is responsible for the release of stress hormones, such as adrenalin (epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol, ACTH).   Pets have been known to have the following effects:  
*ability to command attention and increase its span power of diversion and substitution
*capacity to modify mood
*capacity to stimulate to action
*capacity to relieve internal tensions
*capacity to facilitate self-expression
*capacity to stimulate re-socialization.   

Animals Rehabilitate Inmates  

Some time ago there was a wonderful documentary about a Midwestern penitentiary which started a dog rescue and training program in partnership with local humane societies. Dogs would be saved from death and brought to the inmates for year-long training programs.   At first the warden and the administration was wary. What would the inmates do to the animals? What would the animals do to the inmates? They were deeply concerned, but proceeded, taking detailed notes along the way. What they found shocked them.   It was the most successful rehabilitation program ever initiated. Inmates found new meaning, new self-esteem, learned incredible skills that were marketable, felt loved perhaps for the first time in their lives, gave of themselves, learned how to love unconditionally, learned how to let go when the dogs had to be given up for adoption, and found out that they had something to live for and that they had a place in the world.  And the dogs, who would have languished in cages or been put to death, became adoptable, well-trained, loving companions.

c. Judith Acosta, 2009. All rights reserved.