Are Dogs Man’s Best Therapist?


Dogs, indeed, may be man’s (and woman’s) best therapist at certain times and in certain situations, with important implications for mental health.

Just as a dog leaps onto its beloved owner, on this leap year, let me leap to my own surprised answer. Yes, dogs, indeed, may be man’s (and woman’s) best therapist at certain times and in certain situations.

I never imagined I would write something like this, for I have not been a lover of dogs. I usually cringe when they come too close. I’m not exactly sure why. I don’t recall any traumatic childhood experiences with dogs. In fact, we did have a dog at home, which my sister wanted. Maybe, that’s it, something sibling. Or, maybe I feared it was my replacement as I went off to college. “Pretzels,” that was the name of the cocker spaniel, I think. It was rusty in color.

In my adult family, cats were acceptable to me. They seemed much different than dogs, especially in that they often went their own way.

Maybe this helps explain why I haven’t been paying much attention to the burgeoning role of dogs in mental healthcare. However, that is beginning to become harder for me to ignore, as a series of dog encounters of one sort or another serendipitously occurred during this leap month. The first was at one of the clinics I work at, actually the one that specializes in helping the transgendered (as discussed in an earlier blog). When I came in that day, a therapist was showing a dog around. When I must have looked incredulous as the dog on the leash seemed to be lurching toward me, she calmly said, “I’m training him to be a therapeutic dog here.” Hopefully not when I’m around, I thought to myself.

The next day I found an article in my pile of stuff to bring to work that my wife, nicknamed Rusti, said she would give me because she found it so moving. It was “Wonder Dog: A Golden Retriever Was the Only Thing That Could Reach a Raging, Disconnected Boy,” by Melissa Fay Greene. It was from the February 5 Sunday New York Times Magazine, and wouldn’t you know it, I had (unconsciously) passed right over it. But my wife was right; it was moving and had important implications for mental healthcare, and maybe, just maybe, for me too.

The boy in question was a 12 year old boy adopted from Russia by a writer and her Rabbi husband, when the boy was one. As it turned out, he had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and major behavioral problems, and despite extensive treatment by a psychiatrist, became almost impossible to handle.. The dog Chancer seemed to change everything for the better, and rather quickly, as these quotes indicate:

“I could feel it instantly, the magnetism between Iyal and the dog . . . Chaucer was an emotional and physical anchor for a kid who was pretty lost in the world.”
“When Iyal is distressed, Chancer is distressed.”
“Unlike Iyal, Chancer knows what to do about it.”
“Chancer sometimes heads off tantrums before they start.”
“Lately, and this is the best yet: if Iyal gets distressed, he goes to find Chancer, and he curls up next to him.”
“The absolutely nonjudgmental responses from animals are especially important to children.”

The more I read, the more such therapeutic dogs reminded me of Carl Rogers and supportive psychotherapy. Maybe instead of the empathy pills I mentioned in last month’s blog, we need more of such dogs.

I then associated and remembered other recent articles I had barely glanced at about dogs in mental healthcare. Retracing my steps, I found the following.

Although I had paid much attention to the escalating problems of PTSD in the military over the last decade, decrying the poor planning and inadequate resources to help, a new innovation developed by the military had barely registered with me. Yes, you guessed it. It is the use of trained dogs for PTSD. Moreover, their use seems to resemble that of the boy Iyal. These trained service dogs can act like seeing-eye dogs except they are trained to watch for danger and to obey the orders of the patient. For those who are beginning to show a fight or flight response when no danger is actually present, the dog can place a gentle paw on the foot or curl around the legs, as if to nonverbally say, everything is safe here. A kind of seeing-mind dog, if you will. The soldier can also direct the dog by commanding “block me,” “watch me,” or “pop a corner,” and the dog will do an appropriate check to reassure the soldier.

Is this cost-effective? Sure seems so. The dogs cost about $25,000 each to train and then have maintenance costs, but they appear to make a major difference where usual psychiatric treatments don’t, and seem to have less of a stigma. Where they will fit on expert treatment guidelines and whether for-profit managed care companies will authorize them, is yet to be determined.

Unfortunately, dogs that are involved in battlefield operations are also subject to PTSD and can exhibit equivalent symptoms. They don’t have other dogs to treat them, though desensitization and alprazalam sometimes helps.

Of course, there are mental health risks for dogs in more everyday life, also. They can be physically abused or neglected. At times, there have been recommendations that those with known mental disorders should not even own dogs, but the overall conclusion was that was much too general, and as with the cases of PTSD, the benefits well outweighed the risks.

Later in the month, I watched the Sunday Morning TV show which had coverage of the Westminster Dog Show in New York, showing how dogs can be trained to be exquisite show dogs and bring pleasure to their owners. Not long after, there seemed to be a bit of resemblance to the dresses worn at the Academy Award show.

Most everybody probably knows the usual mental health benefits dogs have for humans, and why they are often called “man’s best friend.” That’s the major reason they were domesticated so long ago. They can help with companionship, getting over losses, and self-worth. Children can learn nurturing behavior, which can help them to be better parents. In fact, at the end of February, I happened to hear how a couple who were dating and had just bought a dog. Now, I had always wondered whether we needed more preparation and training to obtain a marital license, sort of like we have to do with a car. Some clergy have come to recommend premarital evaluation and counseling. However, this innovation by the couple was completely different. They decided to get a dog before they decided to marry, in part to see how they worked together in caring for a living being. Maybe this could be the closest approximation to having a baby, one of them told me. Surely, this would bring out other aspects of one’s personality and the relationship than had heretofore been seen. I don’t know how often this has been tried by others for this reason, but I can’t wait to hear more about this ingenious trial. It’s sort of like primary prevention for marital conflict.

Of course, at times, and given their wild origins, dogs can be harmful and bite unexpectedly. Maybe this is the equivalent of ethical lapses in human therapists.

Now it may be beginning to sound like I like dogs. Maybe I do. Maybe they can even be considered to be colleagues. I’d even go so far as to nominate leap day to be the “Day of the Dog.”

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