Canine Assisted Therapy

Canines, or dogs, are considered to be the most interconnected animal with humans, as they formed an integral part of our evolution. Not only have dogs imparted humans with assistance for hunting and security, but they also provided a powerful bond of companionship for many who integrated them into their lives. The relationship between humans and dogs is cited throughout recorded history (e.g., Hines, 2003) and has been utilized in a vast array of fields and services such as law enforcement and the military in modern day contexts (Knisely, Barker & Barker, 2012). In the past two decades, the promising potential of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) using dogs has begun to be recognized for application in therapeutic settings to treat a variety of psychological and psychiatric conditions. Previous studies investigating the implementation of dog assisted therapy (C.A.T.) in mental health settings have demonstrated outcomes such as stress reduction, enhanced socialization and improvement in emotional regulation, behavioral difficulties and overall wellbeing (Lasa et al., 2011). Moreover, benefits have also been observed in clinical settings where C.A.T. has successfully improved symptoms surrounding autism spectrum disorders (ASD), dementia, and even schizophrenia (Wijker et al., 2020; Hawkins et al., 2019). Accordingly, the potential for C.A.T. in fostering psychological wellbeing is expansive, and with an ever-growing pool of research, it’s crucial to highlight the various benefits it may have on individual outcomes.



Throughout this article, we will discuss the science and benefits behind C.A.T. and highlight the various modalities of treatment that it can be implemented in. Firstly, we will highlight the underlying mechanisms of C.A.T. and show how it contributes to a wide range of positive outcomes. Second, we will cite the wide range of applications that C.A.T. can be used to successfully treat and manage various health conditions.

How do Dogs help facilitate healing?

It may seem extreme to posit that a mere interaction with a dog can have profound effects on psychological wellbeing. However, there are tangible processes that ensue during the human-dog interaction which demonstrate the underlying mechanisms that drive the observed effects. A study investigating the effects of C.A.T. found that the increase of neuromodulators serotonin and oxytocin was significantly associated with the amount of time spent with a dog (Menna et al., 2019). As neurochemicals that are Implicated in processes such as socialization, mood and affectivity, it was found that the ethological characteristics of dogs could elicit the secretion of serotonin and oxytocin through play, communication and interaction. The release of serotonin and oxytocin also plays an anxiolytic role within the brain, meaning that it has a direct effect on the production of cortisol, which contributes to an increased ability to mitigate feelings of stress (Love, 2018; Matsushita et al., 2019). This is important as many psychological disorders, namely anxiety and PTSD, stem from an aberrant stress response, as heightened levels of cortisol exacerbate the negative symptoms (Fiksdal et al., 2019)

Moreover, the relationship between humans and dogs can act as a strong emotional bond for both humans and animals. We often see the expression of various attachment styles with dogs that mirror the attachments that one may have with a friend or family member (Handlin et al., 2012). These social bonds are shown in research to generate a myriad of different psychological and neurochemical outcomes that are beneficial to the individual (Brent et al., 2014). More specifically, C.A.T. can promote behavioral factors such as self-esteem enhancement, interpersonal relationship building and emotional belonging which are inherently linked to processes such as increased emotional connection and subsequent oxytocin release (Shen et al., 2018). When we consider how many clinical symptoms stem from a lack of emotional and social connection, we begin to see how C.A.T. can positively impact a wide range of clinical disorders in therapeutic settings.

How can Canine Assisted Therapy be Used?

As its name suggested, C.A.T. does not act as a primary mechanism of change for treating disorders, but it has profound impacts when used in conjunction with intervention strategies such as cognitive-behavioral or psychodynamic therapy (O’Haire, Guerin & Kirkham, 2015). Studies investigating the effects of C.A.T. have found profound effects on its implementation throughout four primary domains of treatment:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorders. These disorders vary in nature but one of the primary symptoms is the difficulty in understanding social cues and social-related stimuli. C.A.T. has been shown to improve the wellbeing of ASD patients through the human-animal bond where a dog will receive and reflect nonverbal communication from the patient. This interaction promotes the development of social skills and emotional connections with ASD patients (Wikjer et al., 2020).

  • Medical difficulties: C.A.T. has been associated with reducing blood pressure and hormonal stress due to the anxiolytic effects produced by oxytocin secretion. It has frequently been used in tandem with interventions surrounding heart disease and has shown success in promoting physiological outcomes as it improves cardiopulmonary pressures, neurohormonal levels, and leads to decreased anxiety (Handlin et al., 2018).

  • Behavioral problems: C.A.T. has been used extensively for the treatment of behavioral problems such as trauma and delinquency. Studies have shown that features associated with C.A.T. such as physical contact, belonging and companionship are significantly associated with the reduction of behavioral difficulties, especially in adolescent cohorts (Muela et al., 2017).

  • Emotional wellbeing: C.A.T. is evidenced to positively impact depression, anxiety and eating-disorder phenotypes. The human-animal bond has been demonstrated to improve behavioral activation (i.e., regaining energy to complete tasks), self-esteem and calming in mentally ill patients (Muela et al., 2017). Researchers attribute these effects to the increase of oxytocin and serotonin that can be observed during C.A.T. (Menna et al., 2019).

Another attribute of how C.A.T. manages mental health difficulties is by fostering feelings of normalcy which helps reduce the self-perceived stigma of mental illness. If you suffer from depression or trauma, C.A.T. enables you to experience a sense of freedom by engaging in daily activities without the element of mental illness coming into question (MacDonald & Callery, 2004). Accordingly, participants who have undergone C.A.T. have frequently reported an increased sense of grounding that promoted stress reduction, decreased feelings of detachment and offered non-verbal avenues of emotional expression (Stewart, Bruneau & Elliot, 2016).

The Bottom Line

C.A.T. is a treatment strategy involving a therapy dog that is used in conjunction with mainline forms of therapy to promote various domains of psychological wellbeing. Essentially, C.A.T. is responsible for eliciting a key neurochemical response (i.e., serotonin and oxytocin secretion) in the brain that is responsible for our vital affective, emotional and wellbeing processes. Moreover, the heightened oxytocin levels in the brain have been shown to significantly reduce our hormonal stress response, which has a subsequent effect of lowering the body's blood pressure. Due to the factors highlighted above, research has demonstrated that C.A.T. is a compelling therapy that can be used for treating a wide range of conditions such as ASD, heart problems, behavioral difficulties and emotional problems. Moreover, the bond between humans and dogs has been shown to elicit robust grounding effects that mitigate feelings of self-perceived stigma and emotional detachment. The bottom-line concerning C.A.T. is the significant therapeutic effects it has on the individual suffering from mental health difficulties. Despite being a simple intervention strategy, it has profound underlying impacts on the brain and body that are still being uncovered by research today.

References

Fiksdal, A., Hanlin, L., Kuras, Y., Gianferante, D., Chen, X., Thoma, M. V., & Rohleder, N. (2019). Associations between symptoms of depression and anxiety and cortisol responses to and recovery from acute stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 102, 44-52.

Hines, L. M. (2003). Historical perspectives on the human-animal bond. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(1), 7-15.

Lasa, S. M., Ferriero, G., Brigatti, E., Valero, R., & Franchignoni, F. (2011). Animal-assisted interventions in internal and rehabilitation medicine: a review of the recent literature. Panminerva Med, 53(2), 129-36.

Love, T. M. (2018). The impact of oxytocin on stress: the role of sex. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 23, 136-142.

MacDonald, H., & Callery, P. (2004). Different meanings of respite: a study of parents, nurses and social workers caring for children with complex needs. Child: Care, Health and Development, 30(3), 279-288.

Matsushita, H., Latt, H. M., Koga, Y., Nishiki, T., & Matsui, H. (2019). Oxytocin and stress: neural mechanisms, stress-related disorders, and therapeutic approaches. Neuroscience, 417, 1-10.

Menna, L. F., Santaniello, A., Amato, A., Ceparano, G., Di Maggio, A., Sansone, M., ... & Fioretti, A. (2019). Changes of Oxytocin and Serotonin Values in Dialysis Patients after Animal Assisted Activities (AAAs) with a Dog—A Preliminary Study. Animals, 9(8), 526.

Muela, A., Balluerka, N., Amiano, N., Caldentey, M. A., & Aliri, J. (2017). Animal‐assisted psychotherapy for young people with behavioural problems in residential care. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 24(6), O1485-O1494.

O'haire, M. E., Guérin, N. A., & Kirkham, A. C. (2015). Animal-assisted intervention for trauma: A systematic literature review. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1121.

Shen, R. Z., Xiong, P., Chou, U. I., & Hall, B. J. (2018). “We need them as much as they need us”: A systematic review of the qualitative evidence for possible mechanisms of effectiveness of animal-assisted intervention (AAI). Complementary therapies in medicine, 41, 203-207.

Stewart, L. A., Bruneau, L., & Elliott, A. (2016). The role of animal-assisted interventions in addressing trauma-informed care. ACA Vistas, Spring, 15.

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