Modern Day Animal-Assisted Therapy
Modern day animal-assisted therapy can be traced back to 1977 when the Delta Foundation was first formed in Portland, Oregon. The president, a psychiatrist, Dr. Michael McCulloch, and two veterinarians, Dr. Leo Bustad and Dr. Bill McCulloch, were the three primary founding members. Bustad and McCulloch realized through interactions with their colleagues, that many professionals had anecdotal stories about the positive impact of animals on the health of their owners or people they came in contact with, but there was little research to support these accounts. The Delta Foundation was formed in 1977 and these men committed themselves to doing research to further explain the phenomenon of animals having a positive impact on the health of humans. In 1981, Dr. Leo Bustad, DVM, Ph.D. took over as the president and the name was changed to the Delta Society, to symbolize the involvement of both human and animal practitioners in the research of the human/animal interventions.
Finally, someone was able to compile the results of research that offered proof that animals could help reduce blood pressure, lower levels of stress and anxiety, and stimulate the release of endorphins in humans. This research enabled the Delta Society to have the scientific support they needed to help expand the use of animals to better the health of human beings.
In 1981, Dr. Bill McCulloch DVM, worked with the American Veterinary Association’s Human-Animal Bond Task Force to review the position on the animal-human bond. That committee continues to this day and offers guidance to healthcare workers, handlers/responsible persons and veterinarians participating with resident animal, animal- assisted therapy and animal-assisted activity programs through educational documents on their AVMA Store website: https.ebusiness.avma.org. This interdisciplinary approach between healthcare workers, handlers, and veterinarians provides everyone involved with these programs a resource to ensure that the animals are treated with the utmost regard for their health and well-being. Maintaining a focus on the animal’s well-being will optimize the benefits of the humans in the program. A healthy, well-adjusted animal will be able to perform to the level expected by the physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech therapist and the positive results will allow the program to continue and thrive going forward. Conversely, an animal that has become stressed or ill may have a negative interaction with a human, thus causing the program to end abruptly at the institution.
A landmark study that turned the tides of the perception of the animal/human relationship as being more fact than fiction was a study of 92 cardiac care patients by Friedmann et al. The study “Animal companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit” found the one year survival rate was significantly better if they were pet owners versus non-pet owners.
Friedmann and colleagues prompted several more studies to examine the impact animals have on our health. According to Aubrey Fine in the book, Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy. Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines For Practice, two of these studies were of significance. Study 1, by Katcher et al. in 1983 found animals are able to reduce arousal and promote relaxation simply by holding a person’s attention. Study 2, by McNicholas and Collis, 1995; Serpell, 1996; Siegel, 1990 found that animals can offer a form of stress reducing social support.
Throughout the 80‘s and 90’s a flurry of activity occurred with programs involving animals working with humans. The Delta Society was actively involved with the passage of the Housing and Urban Rural Recovery Act of 1983 through their testimony in Washington D.C. Through this Act, as amended in 1988, owners of federally assisted rentals for the elderly or handicapped are prevented from discriminating against the elderly or handicapped tenants if they chose to have a household pet. This Act also came to be known as the ‘‘National Senior Citizens Pet Ownership Protection Act’’. This Act was a strong show of support for the value of animals in the lives of their humans.
The Air Carrier Access Act & Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 protected an emotionally disabled person and his/her Emotional Support Animal. It allowed these animals in the cabins of airplanes if it was a regular route available to the general public. During this same time period the Delta Society developed the “National Service Dog Center”, a program focused on “advocating the acceptance of service dogs in public places” and providing “tools to help those with disabilities find a service dog trainer and understand their rights.”
In 2012, Delta Society changed its name to Pet Partners to better define their role of improving human health through positive animal interactions. For 35 years, Delta Society, now Pet Partners, has been a leader in the animal-human health relationship and continues to champion the cause by providing standardized training to volunteers and health care professionals in animal assisted activities. Local non-profit organizations like Canine Assisted Therapy (C.A.T.) in Oakland Park, Florida have added to the credibility of animal-assisted interventions through their training programs of therapy teams consisting of a dog and their handler. The organization endorses strong core values to maintain the integrity of the program, extensive policies and procedures to augment the facility’s policies, and overall high standards of animal selection.