Pets as Therapists

November 9, 2010

Robert Forto

This is an entry in a series of posts about dog law. The subject of dog law is often misunderstood and I hope by providing education to dog owners that it is not just he said, she said, in regards to the rights of our canine companions. The topic today is about canines assisting in therapy for a variety of individuals.

Four out of five people who responded to a recent Psychology Today survey said that when they were lonely, or upset that their pets were often their closest companions. One woman in a difficult family situation wrote that without her dog she “could not tolerate life.”

This finding explains why the most visible benefits of an animal’s companionship are reaped by people who lack normal human relationships: disturbed children, lonely older people, or prison inmates . Therapists and administrators now routinely use animals to treat or manage such patients.

For the most part animals entered into the world of psychology therapy serendipitously. One psychiatrist for example happens to have his dog in his office when a young patient came early for an appointment, then dog became an integral part of the child’s therapy. In the 1970’s an entire course of research was triggered when troubled adolescents in an Ohio State University hospital-many of whom refused to communicate with staff-asked if they could play with dogs used for behavior research, which they had heard barking in a nearby kennel. Even the most withdrawn patients improved after contact with the dogs. Dr. Forto helped develop a study for at risk youth with violent tendencies and paired them up with aggressive dogs for training. The idea behind the premise is to have to individuals with internal conflict learn to work together and to assist one another, cross species, I might add in a way that has never been explored before. The results were nothing short of remarkable. It gave the youth a productive use of their time and they gained valuable skills in caring for and training dogs, but it also gave these aggressive dogs a second chance.

It is not an exaggeration to say that pets can give people a reason to live. Often people institutionalized in prisons have no goals, no responsibilities, and no variety in their lives. Dogs as residents in these prisons make an atmosphere more homelike and can have a wonderful enlivening effect on morale.

A prisoner that is allowed to care for, or even train, a dog while his/her doing time may become more alert, involved and sociable to other inmates and staff. As one prison program director put it “the therapeutic results are nothing short of miraculous.” Dr. Forto was the training coordinator for a prison service dog-training program for a number of years and he can see the benefits of this type of situation. Not only did it change the lives of these prisoners, many of them doing life sentences, but it was their way of giving back to the community as they were a puppy raiser program with a national service dog organization. Their training of these dogs was very successful, much better than the national average and many of these dogs went on to be placed with families in need of a service dog.

Now that scientists in the medical and psychiatric communities have accepted what pet owners have always known-that animals make people feel better-they have set about documenting the psychological effects animals have on people. When people pet dogs, especially ones they have grown attached to, their blood pressure drops. The same thing happens when people talk to a dog-although talking to another person usually raises blood pressure. Even the presence of a dog is comforting. In one study, people who took a standardized anxiety-measuring test when the experimenter’s dog was in the room scored lower than those who took the test with only the human present.

Let’s let Freud, who was an avid dog lover, have the last word on the psychology of dog-people relationships. Here’s how he described the “extraordinary intensity” with which he loved his dog, Topsy: “affection without ambivalence, the simplicity free from almost unbearable conflicts or civilization, the beauty of existence complete in itself…that feeling of intimate affinity of an undisputed solidarity.” While yes , that may sound like psycho-mumbo-jumbo, it is clear what Dr. Freud is trying to say isn’t it?

If you are a therapist and would like to find out more about using a dog in your counseling practice or if you are a prison administrator and would like to explore the benefits of a canine training program at your facility please give us a call. We would be happy to discuss this with you.

Robert Forto | Team Ineka | Alaska Dog Works | Mushing Radio | Dog Works Radio | Denver Dog Works


Dr. Robert Forto is a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular radio shows, Mush! You Huskies and Dog Works Radio Shows


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About robertforto

Robert Forto is the owner of Dog Works Training Company in Alaska, a canine behaviorist, mushin' down a dream, sports nut and radio show host. Robert writes a lot about his observations in Alaska, pop culture, music, and of course dogs!

View all posts by robertforto

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One Comment on “Pets as Therapists”

  1. Michele Forto Says:

    Very informative article. Researchers have only hit the tip of the iceberg.


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