If you live with a dog you just know when it’s happy or miserable, don’t you? Of course you do. Even the scientific community, now admits that dogs have emotions – even if scientists can’t directly measure what they are experiencing.
People have had a close bond with domesticated dogs for centuries. In his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique, Voltaire observed: “It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defence and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful: it is the best friend man can have.”
Research has shown time and time again the positive impact pet ownership can have on our lives. Indeed, a study of 975 dog-owning adults, found that in times of emotional distress most people were more likely to turn to their dogs than their mothers, fathers, siblings, best friends, or children.
It’s not surprising then that dogs are now the most commonly used animal in therapy. Our canine pals are being increasingly used as participants in a variety of mental health programmes – offering companionship, happy associations and unconditional love.
In the UK, Pets As Therapy (PAT) has more than 5,000 active PAT dogs, which meet some 130,000 people a week. In the US, the American Kennel Club has a Therapy Dog Program which recognises six national therapy dog organisations and awards official titles to dogs who have worked to improve the lives of the people they have visited.
Dogs who heal
Sigmund Freud is generally acknowledged as the accidental pioneer of canine-assisted therapy. During his psychotherapy sessions in the 1930s, a chow chow called Jofi stayed alongside him in the office. Freud noticed that patients became more relaxed and open when Jofi was present, and it helped him to build a rapport.
But the official beginning of animal-assisted therapy is generally linked to World War II, when a Yorkshire terrier called Smoky accompanied corporal William Lynne when visiting service hospitals in New Guinea. Her presence lifted the spirits of wounded soldiers.
Despite all this, it was not until the 1960s that the first documented case study of a dog working as a “co-therapist” was made. The US psychotherapist Boris M. Levinson maintained that the presence of his dog Jingles added a “new dimension to child psychotherapy”. Despite opposition from peers, Levinson strongly defended the use of dogs as therapeutic aids.
How dogs feel
But while there is no question that dogs are very good at understanding us, sadly the reverse is not always so true. A classic example of this is when someone has had a little “accident” in the house and dog owners think that their pet looks guilty. But for the dog in question, that look is purely submission and is a way for the dog to say “don’t hurt me” rather than an admission of guilt.