It’s that time of year when I start longing for animals, especially dogs. What is better than cuddling with an adorable puppy or just petting a dog for that matter…nothing! (unless you are allergic I guess…). Animals bring joy and comfort and tend to lighten up our moods when we are around them. Dogs are remarkable creatures and some of their professions include being part of the search and rescue police force, detecting or tracking drugs, herding animals for farmers, helping the disabled as seeing eye dogs and therapy dogs, and are now serving as models for genetic research as insight into diseases. Dogs are compassionate and often form a special bond with us.
Research has been done to study the effectiveness of therapy dogs with certain disorders. One service-training group called Wilderwood Service Dogs focuses on using dogs to help people who have neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. The dogs accompany these people as an aid to keep the individual safe and help them. One form of therapy the dog can offer in this situation is called deep pressure therapy, which happens as the dog climbs on the individual to provide warmth and pressure. In Emily Stroud’s blog Service dogs help those with neurological disorders, Tiffany Denyer the founder of this training group comments on the pressure therapy, “[The dog’s action of climbing on the patient] signals the brain to release serotonin from the deep pressure and causes reorientation and a decrease in anxiety and helps them focus” (Stroud, 2012).
The basic notion that a dog’s presence can enhance our mood and help certain people with these disorders has lead to a new study that suggests dogs may be able to repair certain mental health issues due to their positive influence on the human brain, according to Dr. Karen Becker who is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. Lindsey Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate in animal sciences, conducted a study that involved bringing shelter dogs to visit teenage boys living in a residential treatment center for drug and alcohol abuse. She noticed positive outcomes after the sessions, the teenagers were energetic, happy, and had feelings of joyfulness. This initial study demonstrated the valuable association between human-dog interactions as a way to improve the mood among teenagers at the treatment centers (Becker, 2013).
The study of dog interaction at the residential treatment shelter prompted Ellsworth to conduct another study where she split the boys in the treatment center into two groups; one group played an activity during recreation time while the other group interacted with the shelter dogs. The boys involved with this study were also being treated for ADHD and PTSD. After analyzing measures, it was shown that interacting with the dogs was more stimulating emotionally, increased joviality, attentiveness and serenity, and showed an overall decrease in sadness. Ellsworth theorizes that dopamine is released in the teenager’s brain when they await the arrival of the dogs each week. By interacting with the dogs socially, it may trigger a release of nature’s “feel good” hormones. Ellsworth states in Becker’s blog post A Groundbreaking Solution for ADHD and Depression – As Close As Your Backyard, “Using Natural stimuli like dogs could help restore the normal function of these critical chemical messengers after the brain’s chemistry has been altered through drug use”(p.1) When drug use alters opioid systems, sometimes it can leave the user feeling lonely and depressed, hence dogs would mitigate those negative emotions. At the end of the trial, the boy’s interactions with people improved. Ellsworth’s next step will be to study how dogs impact the teens when they are involved with other through structured activities like group therapy. Ellsworth theorizes the dogs will prove beneficial in this setting (Becker, 2013).
Below is a youtube video about an Iraq war veteran Alan who has PTSD and how Frankie his therapy dog helps him in his daily life. It’s really interesting to see how the dog responds to certain cues and comforts him.
K. Becker. (2013, August 7). A Groundbreaking Solution for ADHD and Depression – As Close As Your Backyard? [Web Healthy Pets]. Retrieved from http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2013/08/07/dog-human-brain-chemistry.aspx
E. Stroud. (2012, October 23). Service dogs help those with neurological disorders [Web WBIR-TV]. Retrieved from http://www.wbir.com/news/article/239248/8/Service-dogs-help-those-with-neurological-disorders