Man's Best Friend: Pet's Effect on Psychology and the Therapy of a Psychiatric Service Dog

Submitted by Cass Biles on Thu, 10/24/2019 - 12:05 - 0 Comments
Since ancient times, animals and humans have coexisted and developed symbiotic relationships, with the BBC pinning the first domestication of the dog as far back as 40,000 years ago. The cat, according to National Geographic, was domesticated around 8,000 years ago in Southwest Asia and Europe. Many cultures and religions have been built surrounded by animals, and animal’s symbolic use has been apparent since the dawn of art. From nomadic hunting, to religious worship, to the poetry of our very beginnings, animals and pets have provided comfort and companionship through the eon of our history. 
 
But how has this entwined relationship between pets and humans affected us? How mentally and physiologically have we as a species changed with the companionship of these fellow creatures?
 
According to the BBC and business insider, pets, specifically dogs, have an abundance of therapeutic effects on their owners. Simply staring into your pup’s eyes raises both you and your dog’s oxytocin levels, a hormone associated with bonding and love. Dopamine and serotonin, both neurotransmitters that play an important role in human happiness, are also released during activities like petting, playing, and talking. In fact, dogs have such a beneficial effect that Florence Nightingale originally suggested the use of animals as company for the unwell, and Freud would use his pets to aid communication with his patients,  claiming that patients felt more comfortable talking through Jofi, his dog. Recently however, the use of individual therapy dogs for mental benefit is more common, with one of these pairs going to our very own Lincoln high school.
Students may have noticed senior Maddy Tubbs and her adorable golden retriever, Bailey, strolling the halls of Lincoln. With her big pup by her side, Maddy has attracted a lot of questions (and requests for pets). 
“He’s such a good boy, and he’s improved so many aspects of my life.”
Maddy shared that Bailey has helped her overcome issues with PTSD, anxiety, and, most notably, panic attacks: “He’s reduced my panic attacks from once, twice a day to having one or two since I’ve gotten him.” 
Considering Maddy has owned Bailey for about a year now, it’s certainly an impressive improvement. Maddy in part credits this to is Bailey’s ability to empathize, along with the comfort of physical affection, “he really is empathetic… if I’m getting stressed out, he knows, and he’ll try to snuggle up to me and be like, ‘hey, hey, pay attention to me, you’re not allowed to be stressed! … we are very dependent creatures on physical affection, and a pet can supply some of that.” 
She also wrote about how pets can be helpful to people who may struggle in normal social interactions, “you can create a really strong emotional connection with [your pet], and have a really great relationship between you and the animal if you struggle to create relationships with other people.”
Additionally, Maddy reports that Bailey has affected her daily motivation, causing her to become more social and outgoing.  She also emphasizes his usefulness when it comes to conversation, and the decrease in awkwardness that usually comes with it. “Something I really struggled with was getting out and doing things” she stated, “he’s always there as a conversation topic to fall back on… for some people it’s really hard to have conversations and keep them going, so, if you have [a dog], then… you’ll have something to fall back on, and if there’s an awkward silence it’s not as awkward.” On the flip side, when Maddy is anxious about a situation, Bailey also provides an excuse to leave. 
Maddy even describes their relationship as “symbiotic”, as Bailey seems to rely upon her as a therapy human as much as she relies upon him, “When he’s stressed, he’ll tend to stick closer to me, and try to get more affection and its still so sweet, its like ‘aww I love you, you’re ok!!’… it’s just heartwarming that he feels safe around me, to the extent that he wants to be around me when he’s upset.” 
Ultimately however, one of the best parts of pet-owning is companionship, and the reliance upon one another, as Maddy states: “[it’s] really rewarding to be cared for.’’ 
The idea of a school therapy dog also came up, as many other high schools have implemented a therapy pet so students can feel more comfortable when talking about difficult issues. According to Maddy, “[with a dog] you don’t have to make eye contact, feel like you’re talking to someone you don’t really trust, or you don’t feel comfortable around… especially if you’re talking about something really serious, like possibly some form of abuse… or even thoughts of suicidal ideation” she states, “it’s way easier to tell an animal that then face a person.” 
Students seem to agree with Maddy when it comes to the therapeutic effect of animals, with 100% of people who took a poll on the subject agreeing that pets can and do have a beneficial effect on one’s mental health. One poller stated that “Dogs, in particular, have a sort of need to comfort their owners if they are in distress, on top of often loving them regardless.” Others said that animals provide distraction and calm from troubling issues, a non-judgmental source of comfort, “love and laughter”, and are “healing… because all they want to do is love." 
When asked about a therapy pet for Lincoln, the student’s responses were also pretty skewed, with 73% of people saying “yes”, 10.8% saying “no”, and 16.2% saying “maybe/depends.” Students write that due to Lincoln’s extremely competitive environment, a therapy pet would be beneficial to school-wide mental health.One student wrote that “Seeing [a] dog walking around the school is just a five second reprieve from a world of trying to get by on five or six hours of sleep.” 
Other students however, are concerned with allergies/fears, and the resources that would have to be spent on a school pet, as Lincoln has an already tight funding budget.
Either way, Maddy wanted to emphasize the mental health resources we have currently at Lincoln, and encourage students to utilize them. “It’s completely normal to be not ok… I think the majority, if not all of the kids at school, at least have anxiety or feel they are under a huge amount of pressure… I think it’s really important for them to know that they’re not alone, and that it’s not a problem that they feel that way.” Fluffy friends or not, we can all agree that students mental health is an important issue, and perhaps we can gain some insight from our wonderful, unconditionally loving pets. 
 
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About the Author

Cass Biles's picture

Cass is a junior writer and illistrator for the Beyond the Flock. She loves dogs, biology, art, and books. 

"If you don't sin Jesus died for nothing"