My cat Tigger and I have a regular ritual. Every night when I lie on the couch and watch TV, she takes this as her personal cuddle time. Walking in circles around me, giving me an occasional friendly head butt, she finally settles in and stretches out her long body on the edge of the couch. Now she’s ready for her full body massage. Flicking her tail and purring happily, I know that she’s enjoying a moment of cat nirvana, and it’s comforting to know I have such magic fingers.
Most people enjoy this type of experience with their pets. The mutual bond of affection creates something beyond just ownership. We tend to think of our pets as our children. When they’re happy, we’re happy, and when they pass on, we grieve.
According to Barbara J. King, chancellor professor of anthropology at William and Mary University, and author of the recent book Being With Animals, humans and animals have a long history of interaction. She cites examples such as the beautiful 32,000-year-old animal drawings recently discovered at the Chauvet Cave in France, the large 11,000-year-old animal carvings at the Gobekli Tepe Temple in Turkey and, perhaps most touching, the burial together of a man and his pet lamb 8,000 years ago in Çatalhöyük, Turkey.
“Being with animals has made us who we are — and our prehistory helps to explain why humans in every society today crave (though in markedly different ways) connection with animals,” said King.
Pets and humans also have a strong neurochemical connection, as noted by Meg Daley Olmert. Olmert is director of research and development for Warrior Canine Connection, an organization that specializes in helping soldiers with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) train mobility service dogs for veterans with mobility impairments. In her book Made for Each Other, Olmert has written about the most important chemical that humans and animals have in common: oxytocin.
“They realize now,” said Olmert, “that oxytocin not only causes labor contractions and the development of breast milk, but it also makes a mother pick up that baby and care for it.”
Oxytocins are responsible for the development of many types of social behavior and for helping different animal species, such as humans and dogs, to understand each other.
“It allows us to approach a stranger without being paranoid,” she said. “It also allows us to read nonverbal clues very well and gives us reliable communication skills to pass along friendly signals to ourselves and other animals.”
Animals as partners in healing
Pets can also provide something beyond just emotional satisfaction. They can be crucial to emotional and physical healing. Studies have shown that interaction with animals during hospital stays, surgery or other types of medical treatment can help with things like reduction of pain medication after joint replacements, the long-term treatment of schizophrenia, the improvement of heart and lung functions after heart failure, and the reduction of blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol levels.
No wonder what is now being called “animal-assisted therapy” is a growing field of training and study. Organizations like Love on a Leash, the Delta Society, Therapy Dogs International and Playful Pooch are all involved in providing training and certification for therapy animals.
Even the American Humane Society is getting into the act. According to writer Rod Smith, the society has recently established a division called the “Human-Animal Bond” as a way of training new therapy teams.
“The teams will involve animals in the treatment of children suffering from abuse or illness,” said Smith, “and in comforting families during the final days of terminally ill loved ones.”
As simple as touch
When Joan Shugar, a resident of the Keys in Ventura, retired 20 years ago, she decided to do something different with her time.
“I didn’t want to be a Gray Lady with the Red Cross,” she said. “I wanted to be involved with pets.”
And not just owning pets. She wanted to partner with pets as healers.
To do this, Shugar established the first Ventura County chapter of Love on a Leash, a national organization that specializes in certifying therapy animals. She and her dog Nugget trained together, became certified, and began to visit local hospitals and nursing homes.
Shugar has seen firsthand how the simple act of holding and petting an animal can make a huge difference in someone’s life. She’s come to realize how profoundly this impacts patients.
“I had instances where people were dying and asking for Nugget,” said Shugar. “It was just reassuring for them that the dog was there.”
She has traveled across the county with Nugget and other therapy animals and has learned how therapeutic animals can provide health benefits.
“Just making that person happy has been good for their blood pressure, and if they’re sick or dying, the love of the animal comforts them,” she said.
She believes in animals as therapists.
“What these animals do is a form of therapy, the dog-human reaction. It can be used for any illness or disability, and for emotional support.”
Therapeutic support is not limited to dogs. Shugar has used other animals as well, including cats, rabbits, a pot-bellied pig, and Marley, her therapy parrot.
The use of therapy animals does involve a good deal of training. For dogs, they have to be well-schooled, have a gentle temperament and avoid barking. But for Shugar, the most important thing is that the animal has to feel comfortable with the work.
“They’re either going to like it or they’re not going to like it,” she said.
To use therapy dogs, the owners also have to be trained. Their dogs need to be taken for 10-minute walks before going into a facility. They need to be limited to 30-45 minutes with patients, and then be taken for a 10-minute wind-down walk afterwards.
Shugar insists that, like humans, dogs burn mental energy and are subject to stress.
“You do have to prepare the dog and only do short, high-quality visits. For both pets and their owners, it’s hard to pace yourself.”
She knows when her own dog Nugget has burned energy because, when they get home, he plops down and takes a long nap.
“The dog works hard,” she said.
Joan Shugar of Love on a Leash in Ventura with therapy dog Nugget and therapy parrot Marley.
Dogs are a therapist’s best friend
Lisa Mink, a marriage and family therapist in Camarillo and author of the book Koko the Service Dog, has learned about animal therapy on two fronts.
Mink first met Koko when she was a student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Mink had begun to suffer from severe seizure disorders and needed a service dog.
“It started because I had Koko as my service dog and started taking him to internships and training in elementary schools during my master’s program at Cal Poly,” said Mink.
In her work as a preschool instructor, she observed the positive effects of pets on children. Paired with Koko, she began to realize the potential for incorporating him directly into her practice.
How does Mink involve Koko in her practice?
“A service dog is trained to help with an actual disability,” said Mink, “something that truly affects your daily life.”
Koko has undergone extensive training as a therapy dog. He has his certificate of good citizenship, has graduated as a Canine Good Citizen, and is certified through the pet therapy organization Love on a Leash. He also continues to take ongoing obedience classes.
For Mink, having a therapy dog means she has to receive training on two fronts: how to be a therapist and how to work with such a specialized pet. But for someone who does extensive counseling with children, the payoff is worth the effort.
“I started noticing that kids actually looked forward to therapy with Koko. His unconditional love and acceptance added a piece of vulnerability in expressing their love for the dog and talking about things they would normally be embarrassed to talk about,” Mink said.
Mink has learned to encourage conversations between the child and the dog.
“They will come in and report to the dog,” said Mink. “It’s the friendship and positive energy that the dogs have, the friendliness. Kids who, behaviorally, refuse to do anything will come in and play with the dog. There’s something innate in their understanding that the dog will like them no matter what.”
She’s even used the training of her new dog, Mocha, to help kids understand some of their own fears.
“When Mocha was young, she had a fear of stairs,” said Mink. “The kids wanted to encourage and help the dog, which got that conversation going. It opened doors to a new conversation.”
She uses Koko and Mocha to work with anything from anger management, trauma and abuse, and grief and loss, to the development of actual social skills in children who are autistic or going through separation, divorce or adoption.
“It’s learning to verbalize feelings and understand self-regulation,” she said, “Some kids think the dogs understand what they feel and use transference to process emotionally difficult situations.”
Beyond research, Mink believes in what she sees in her own therapy practice — that having Koko and Mocha in the room helps kids to open up.
“I think what convinces me is that the kids want to come,” said Mink. “I see improvement in their behavior and social skills and their willingness to do the work when they get here.”
Gloria Hamblin of Ride On in Newbury Park with therapy horse Moonie.
Horses provide a smooth ride
The relationship between humans and horses is on a par with that of humans and dogs. For centuries, people have used horses for both transportation and work, but beyond that, there is a special love for horses that has affected not only individuals, but countries and cultures.
There’s one thing in particular that humans and horses have in common — the same walking motion. Gloria Hamblin, founder and program director for Ride On in Chatsworth and Newbury Park, knows this very well. She founded Ride On 30 years ago as a way to provide the severely disabled with physical and recreational therapy.
Hamblin, who is trained as a recreational therapist, has been involved with horses since she was in the second grade.
“The horses lived next door to our property and I wanted to get closer to them,” said Hamblin. “I wasn’t doing well in school, so my mother bribed me by promising that if I did better in school, she would let me take lessons.”
It worked and she’s been riding ever since.
Her mother also taught her a different kind of lesson.
“My mom was a rehab nurse, so I spent a lot of time going to the hospital, picking up her check, and being around people with disabilities,” said Hamblin. “And then I saw an article about putting those two together — horses and disabilities. It was about a place where you could be trained to teach riders with disabilities.”
Hamblin uses horses for what is termed “hippotherapy.” Hippotherapy uses the horse’s natural movement for rehabilitation. As practiced by licensed therapists, it involves the proper positioning of the patient on the horse. The therapist analyzes the patient’s response and directs the horse’s movement to achieve specific patient treatment goals.Hippotherapy improves balance, posture, mobility, communication and behavior for patients with many different disabilities.
“When you’re sitting on a horse,” Hamblin explained, “it moves its pelvis in the same way — up and down, back and forth, forward and back, and actually simulates the movement of walking. Also, trotting on a horse simulates jogging.”
According to Hamblin, the horse is particularly suited for this type of therapy, not only because of its shape and movement, but because of its nature.
“A horse is not in your face,” said Hamblin. “It reflects your mood and what you do, and responds that way. They’re responding to what your feelings are. Horses are herd animals. They always do what the other animal is doing.”
The horses in Ride On are specially chosen and trained as therapy animals. Ride On only uses horses that are already trained to ride. The age of the horse can range anywhere from 7 to 15 years, old enough to have had experience dealing with people. The horse has to be in good health, enjoy being around people, and be very easygoing.
When a horse is brought to Ride On, it undergoes a 30-day trial to get used to being around wheelchairs, ramps and loud noises, and to become comfortable with all the different things a kid might do unexpectedly on a horse.
Hamblin is convinced that horses have emotions.
“I do believe that horses have feelings,” said Hamblin. “Some horses really love their work.”
In addition, she said, the relationship between the client and the horse forms a strong bond, and for people who have trouble walking or are confined to wheel chairs, the experience of riding a horse is freeing.
“There’s an affinity where the kid wants to ride the same horse,” said Hamblin, “and being on a horse, you’re looking down on other people, and that’s a different point of view.”
For clients who participate in the programs at Ride On, riding a horse affects them as much emotionally as physically.
“It’s good for social interaction and play groups,” said Hamblin. “Many friendships start between the volunteers and kids with disabilities, and for some of them, this is one of their first chances for healthy social interaction.”
The impact of animals as therapists
Elizabeth Grado, a graduate student in early childhood education at Texas Christian University, summed up the benefits of using animals in a systematic therapy program.
“Man has always found companionship in animals, but now researchers, educators and therapists are finding that by drawing on that comfort, children and adults can attack physical, mental and emotional issues,” said Grado. “The use of animals in therapy sessions has been shown to increase communication, teach responsibility and respect, and, in the case of equine therapy, increase one’s muscle strength and development.”
For anthropologist Barbara King, the importance of being with animals means we can leave our own heads for a while and begin to see outside ourselves.
“I think that being with animals may take us out of ourselves,” said King. “It may center us and calm us because other animals, while they have their own concerns and troubles, don’t get caught up in all the things that may distract us from peace and calm. When we are with them, we are present in the moment.”
Those of us who have pets would probably agree that what we experience in our daily interactions with them is something simple, sincere and free of judgment. Whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, the pet doesn’t care. They open the door unconditionally and we choose to walk through it.
For those involved with animals in professional settings, the basic tenets of human/animal interaction — love, acceptance, companionship — remain the same.
What’s different is knowledge and practice that has been polished and perfected. Simply put, Shugar, Minks and Hamblin have each learned how to unlock this openness and positive energy, in both themselves and their animals, and turn it into the transforming power of therapy.