Power of positive pets

Dogs, cats and more pitch in to help people with emotional and physical disorders

Dogs, cats and more pitch in to help people with emotional and physical disorders

May 02, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Wanted: Friendly, adaptable and obedient psychological therapy assistants. Feathers or fur preferred. Ankle biters need not apply.

Animal-assisted therapy uses dogs, cats, horses and other animals to help treat people for physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning disorders, according to the Delta Society's Standards of Practice for Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy on the organization's Web site at The Washington-based nonprofit organization strives to improve human health through the use of service and therapy animals.

Animal-assisted therapy is not a substitute for medication and other treatments for psychological problems, but a complement to other forms of therapy, said Dr. Sandra Barker, professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the school's Center for Human-Animal Interaction. The center was established to promote interdisciplinary research, clinical, teaching, and service activities to further understanding of the health benefits of interacting with companion animals, according to CHAI Web site at


The benefits of using animals for psychotherapy include fostering empathy, diverting clients' focus from their problems, teaching nurturing skills, and helping to build rapport between the client and the therapist. Animals also offer unconditional acceptance and non-threatening physical contact, according to the Delta Society and AAT practitioners in the Tri-State area and beyond.

The late Winston, Th.D., had an uncanny ability to sense emotional distress and provide comfort for patients, said the dog's owner, psychologist Lou Lichti of City Park Psychological Services & Associates in Hagerstown.

"He was a great companion for people," said Lichti, who specializes in such trauma therapy as treatment for child abuse and sexual abuse. "He could sense emotional pain. Suddenly he'd be sitting at the feet of the person hurting the most. They sort of relied on him to help them deal with their emotional issues. I just think his presence was very comforting."

For 10 years, her beloved Cairn terrier attended Lichti's regular therapy sessions. Like Pavlov's dogs, Winston responded to the office's front door bell with a wagging tail and readiness to meet the next client. He sat patiently at the feet of some patients; curled up in the laps of others; and somehow knew to avoid those clients not interested in his special brand of stress relief, Lichti said.

Barker's American Kennel Club champion Lhasa apso, Barker's High Anxiety - or H.I. - works with patients in the Center for Human-Animal Interaction's outpatient psychotherapy program.

"I let the clients engage with H.I. however they want," Barker said. "It's amazing that, so many times when a client will be talking about their very painful past, they will just be stroking that dog. He also seems to be able to help them deal with more intense emotions for longer periods of time."

Barker and her colleagues also have found that therapy dogs reduce patients' fear and anxiety prior to electroconvulsive therapy. In a study involving 35 patients, those who spent 15 minutes with a dog instead of reading a neutral magazine prior to electroconvulsive therapy experienced an average 37 percent reduction in fear and anxiety, Barker said. The findings of the study were recently published in the Journal of Electroconvulsive Therapy, she said.

The energetic greeting that therapy dog Sarah gives clients as they enter the Therapy Paws counseling office in Portland, Ore., "lifts the spirits of even the most depressed clients," said licensed clinical social worker and practice owner Terry Vinocur. "It really diffuses the tension of the situation. Most people anticipate a doctor's office, medicinal-type setting and out comes a dog with her tail wagging. Some patients just love it and sometimes there's just a glimmer of a smile - but it's there."

Individuals who fear dogs generally don't make appointments at Therapy Paws, Vinocur said, but she welcomes the opportunity to help such folks overcome their fear by getting to know her friendly boxer.

Like fellow boxer Brooke before her, Sarah goes to work with Vinocur every day. The social worker specializes in child and family therapy, and - like Lichti - finds her four-legged assistant especially helpful at breaking the ice with skeptical adolescent clients.

"When they see me sort of kneel down beside the dog and introduce the dog to them, they think that if this person is this cool to the dog, they must be OK," Vinocur said. "You kind of get a free pass."

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