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Dr. Caterina Ambrosi Zaiontz PhD

The furry therapist

7 minutes read

January 21,2021

Let's start with a story; there was a young woman (let's call her Christine) who had two children and had not left her house in over 14 years due to severe anxiety and panic attacks. She had tried various interventions, and nothing seemed to help. Soon enough, we decided to give 'Dog-Assisted Therapy' a chance. We planned sessions that lasted an hour each, spanned over six months, and had a focused goal of helping her leave the house without mental distress. During therapy, Christine developed a bond with the dog (whose name was Ariel) that seemed to keep strengthening as we worked through the sessions. She began interacting and playing with Ariel and slowly opened up about her memories and past trauma. As we started learning how to best deal with her mental distress, we also planned trips to leave the house along with Ariel in the backseat of the patient’s car. Christine became more and more comfortable with Ariel by her side, and over time, she overcame her fears.

Today, it has been three years since we started Christine’s journey with Ariel, and we see her filled with a confidence she never felt before. She not only leaves her house but drives for miles to other towns. A little help from our furry canine friends helped break a 14-year spell.

For many years, animal-assisted interventions were considered a 'soft therapy' done by volunteers and other practitioners who didn't require any formal qualifications. We are now starting to see this change. Italy is the first country to recognise Animal Therapy as an official form of clinical and rehabilitative intervention by the Ministry of Health. The Italian government's recognition of pet therapy has opened many doors. Not only can the general public benefit from these interventions, but the scientific community has been encouraged to strengthen their research on the subject as well.

Italy's progress began with a set of guidelines published in 2015, which became the law in 2017 that all 21 regions of the country embraced. As a nation, we have been deepening our understanding of what animal-assisted therapy can do across several sectors. Apart from psychiatry, we have seen significant benefits also in the educational sector and prison systems. The law's rollout has helped break the stigma associated with animals being co-therapists and is comprehensive in determining the qualifications required for pet therapy professionals and animal welfare rights. It has surfaced possibilities for the field to rapidly develop and bring its potential benefits to many more people.

For several years, researchers have studied neurophysiological reactions when we have meaningful relationships with animals. For example, levels of oxytocin increase in humans and animals during interaction which benefits us in a deeply therapeutic and rehabilitative way. Pet therapy has even shown to help individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, and mental health conditions that accompany old age. This encourages the scientific community to continue publishing evidence-based literature and perhaps help the rest of the world embrace its untapped potential.  

We have conducted a variety of projects that explore various benefits of animal-assisted therapy. One study looked at the impact of animals on individuals in a permanent vegetative state and recorded changes in their clinical parameters during a session. We've also used dog-assisted therapy in prison systems for male inmates to help them deal with mental trauma and allow for rehabilitation. And of course, we worked with patients in nursing homes who deal with mental distress because depression and social isolation have become growing concerns in these settings.

When institutions and clinics recognise dog or animal-assisted therapy (it is constructive, of course, when you have government support) as potentially beneficial, we help construct projects for patients to work with animals. One of the reasons behind animal-assisted therapy growing in popularity is because when a person interacts with another living being such as a dog, it can bring up emotions and patterns of memories that are difficult to elicit with other forms of conventional therapy. A study we conducted at a clinic showed us that some patients who suffer from clinical depression tend to be withdrawn, closed off, and often unable to communicate. However, their behaviour begins to change when an animal is introduced to the session. They opened up while physically interacting with the dog, talked about their memories and their trauma, and began a journey that could allow them to find their path to recovery. Pet Therapy can be also an excellent integrative intervention to psycho-pharmacological treatment in mood disorders, anxiety and eating disorders among others as shown by multiple scientific studies.

In animal therapy settings, the dog often becomes the vehicle for non-verbal communication through physical interaction with the patient. In addition to petting and playing with the animal, one of the relationship's principal points is for the patient to receive love and affection back from the animal. The patient may slowly open up, and the therapist helps with cognitive and mental restructuring to address their past trauma and different sources of distress.

For all this to work well, we need an excellent canine co-therapist. The choice of the dog (not necessarily the breed) is of paramount importance because not all dogs will work well with all patients, and vice versa. Some dogs love working with kids, some enjoy older patients, and others love the challenge and energy of interacting with adolescents. If we don't respect the preferences that dogs clearly show us, we will benefit neither the animal nor the patient.

All this translates to a structured training program for therapy dogs. 

But, before you train a dog, you must select one. A good therapy dog must enjoy meeting new people and indulging in activities. This is incredibly wonderful because everyone is special to them, and they are capable of forging powerful and meaningful bonds with anyone.

In addition to high sociability, we also want the dog to be resilient and adaptive. It is likely for therapy dogs to interact with patients under distress who may express their suffering by acting out or screaming. As they are confronted with many different and unknown situations, it is vital for the dog to adapt while maintaining their composure without developing stress.

If a dog displays these characteristics (ideally, as puppies), we select them for training. The training is a combination of sociability (being exposed to social situations such as going to different locations, meeting other people, indulging in sports etc.), staying calm and technical steadiness (sitting and lying next to you for prolonged periods without going into a state of distress), and obedience of basic commands (sitting, lying down, staying, etc.). It's also important for the dog to become indifferent to stimuli such as objects falling on the floor, which the dog may 'naturally' want to catch or eat, but could be lethal or dangerous (such as medication falling).

There are no breeds that are automatically 'excluded' from animal-assisted therapy. Of course, the privileged breeds are Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers because of their inherent sociability. However, there are several meaningful studies on pet therapy with Pitbulls as well, and the Italian government considers it discriminatory to exclude any breeds a priori. Rescue dogs can also be used but they need to be assessed by Veterninary Surgeons and they cannot be employed in pet therapy unless they have received the proper rehabilitation therapy themselves. Otherwise, we would risk the dog getting afraid, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous.

There is so much we don't know about animals and our interactions with them. There is a world to explore, and the benefits that we have observed so far are possibly just the tip of the iceberg. We have started the journey, and as we progress across the world together, perhaps we will unlock even more powerful interactions with our furry companions.

Written By
Dr. Caterina Ambrosi Zaiontz PhD

Dr. Caterina Ambrosi Zaiontz PhD is a practising Clinical Psychologist-Psychotherapist from Italy. She is also a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society and has lectured at University College London at the Department of European Studies. She has been serving as a Senior University Lecturer and Researcher of Psychopathology and Transcultural Psychology IES Abroad Milan, Italy. Since 2010 she has been involved in Animal Assisted Therapy through evidence-based clinical interventions in the fields of Geriatrics, Psychiatry and the Prison System. She is a fully licensed Dog Trainer and Project Leader in Animal Assisted Therapy. She has published scientific studies and is the Scientific Director of Ministry approved Courses on Animal Assisted Therapy in Italy. 

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