The human-animal bond has been explored for decades. In fact, the media has elevated society’s awareness of the human/animal bond through numerous stories about how animals impact our lives and our health while filling a place in our lives as a loving companion. In 1981, the Delta Foundation collaborated with the American Veterinary Medical Association to define the benefits people achieve by having interactions with animals. The National Institutes of Health in 1987 and the National Institute of Child and Human Development in 2008 worked to explain how the relationship between animals and humans improves the quality of life of the humans that enjoy these relationships.
Local organizations such as Canine Assisted Therapy, a non-profit organization, located in Oakland Park, Florida, have continued to champion the cause of providing therapy animals to healthcare settings, schools and assisted living facilities while ensuring the training of the animals and handlers meet the standards necessary to ensure the success of these programs. Modern day media may glamorize these relationships, but clearly we can see that there is a rich history of dogs and their healing powers. Research has started to prove that those benefits go far beyond what many people ever imagined.
The History of the Human – Animal Bond
Animals have been used in healthcare in some capacity as far back as the 1700’s in Europe. In 1792, the York Retreat, an institution founded by the Quakers in England, documented the use of rabbits and chickens in therapy sessions with mentally ill patients. The use of these animals caused a decrease in the need for restraints and drugs with many of the patients. The success at the York Retreat caught on and more institutions started to use animals in Europe as a part of their treatment programs. The idea of using animals continued to grow and in 1867 farm animals and horses were successfully used with epilepsy patients in Germany, bolstering the movement even further throughout Europe and abroad.
In 1919, the first documented example of the use of animals in the U.S. was at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C., where dogs were used in the treatment of psychiatric patients. Then, in the 1930’s Sigmund Freud, “the father of psychoanalysis”, began using his favorite dog “Jofi” in his treatment sessions. He noticed that Jofi had a “calming effect” on his patients. He also felt that the patients were more relaxed and opened up more when the dog was present. The use of dogs in therapy is just one more area that Freud served as a pioneer.
The use of animals in healthcare continued to spread in the United States. In 1942, patients at the U.S. Army Air Corps Convalescent Hospital in New York worked with farm animals and documented the therapeutic benefit of the interaction between the animals and humans. In 1944, just two years after this positive experience between animals and residents was observed the magazine Mental Hygiene published, “The Mental Hygiene of Owning a Dog” by sociologist James Bossad. This was the first scientific journal that described the positive impact dogs have on on the health of their owners.
In 1962 a New York psychologist, Dr. Boris Levinson, incorporated his dog into the treatment plan of one of his adolescent patients. He published his results in Mental Hygiene. “The Dog as the Co-therapist” became the second article published in a scientific journal on the topic of animals and their impact on healthcare.
A survey of healthcare institutions in 1970 by a psychologist, Ethel Wolff, noted that 48% of healthcare institutions were in some way using animals in psychotherapy. In fact, in the 1970’s a dog named “Skeezer” became a resident at a Children’s Psychiatric Hospital in Michigan. By 1972, a survey conducted by Boris Levinson found that one-third of all psychotherapists were using pets in their treatments.
The Humane Society started a program in Colorado in 1973 that brought animals to visit the residents of a nursing homes. This program, called “Petmobile” was based in Pikes Peak, Colorado and is considered a model for modern-day programs throughout the country.
By 1977, studies were being conducted on the impact of animals on the health of human beings. A study led by Dr. Dean Hatcher, a psychiatrist from the University of Pennsylvania, examined the effects of a patient’s interaction with an animal on their blood pressure. People who interacted with pets had lower blood pressure than those patients that interacted with their family members. In addition, the research team also found that patients who had experienced a severe myocardial infarction and were going home to a pet had improved one year mortality rates compared to patients going home to family members or alone.