The brisk air of the cloudy morning when we drove to Amish country to choose a puppy is forever stamped in my memory. There were two puppies when we arrived at the gas station-brother and sister-but only one was running around like a maniac. She yipped and yapped while scampering around the tiny clearing, tangled up in the leash her owner had dropped, unperturbed by our shouts. She was quite obviously a lunatic, and I loved it.
Cocoa was an enormous help to me while I was recovering from my anxiety. I spent as much time with my little puppy as I possibly could. I loved playing tug and fetch with her, giving her banana treats, and giving her massages. Taking Cocoa for walks encouraged me to get out of the house and exercise for hours around the park. Having her company made it easier for me to interact with others. After all, everyone likes dogs, so any lull in a conversation could be diverted by turning the attention to my adorable but mildly smelly bundle of fluff.
My canine success story is not at all unique. Researchers believe that humans have lived with dogs for 50,000 years and have been comforted by them since they were first domesticated 15,000 years ago (Ernst). The first known animal-assisted therapy was documented in England in 1792 at the York Retreat, an asylum for the mentally ill. Sponsored by the Society of Friends, the York Retreat provided patients with farm animals like ducks who, according to Quaker philanthropist William Tuke, could “enhance the humanity of the emotionally ill” (Jackson). Tuke, whose influence was pivotal in the development of humane treatment methods, observed that the company of animals soothed the patients and sometimes rendered the need for drugs and restraints unnecessary.
Over the course of the next few centuries, mental institutions all across Europe incorporated animal-assisted therapy into their treatment and noticed substantial improvements in many patients’ mood and behavior. Animal-assisted therapy was first recognized by the United States as a viable treatment option in 1919, when St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC first incorporated animals into their treatment curriculum at the recommendation of the Secretary of the Interior (Jackson, Nalette). Therapy expanded to veterans with PTSD in 1942 at the Pawling Air Force Convalescent Hospital in New York (Nalette). The benefits of animal companionship even caught the attention of the world-famous Austrian neurologist Dr. Sigmund Freud, who incorporated his dog Jo-Fi into his clinical practice after observing that the dog “had a calming influence on his patients” (Brady).
The benefits of animal companionship can be enjoyed whether the interaction takes the form of a professional therapy setting or is simply the activity of taking a family pet on a walk, like my time with my dog Cocoa. While animal-assisted therapy is not effective for everyone and should never be substituted for life-saving medication, animal companionship can, in the words of Dr. Sussman, “decrease depression, anxiety, and sympathetic nervous system arousal in the owner” (Jackson). The comfort and relief that a friendly animal may provide to a human in distress, either physically or psychologically, should not be underestimated. Today, the animal-assisted therapy that probably began with cavemen and wolves is widely respected as a possible treatment method for patients, whether they suffer from depression, heart problems, or if they simply need a fluffy animal to help them recover from a rough workday (Landau).
Looking back to the beginning of my four years with Cocoa, I am certain that she was the crucial aspect to my successful recovery. Whether we are playing fetch, taking a walk, or snuggling, just focusing on my dog’s happiness centers my thoughts and allows me to ignore everything else. While my time with Cocoa does not qualify as a conclusive data-based study, I can personally attest to the advantages of animal companionship that provoked William Tuke to encourage patient-animal interaction. Not only am I far more relaxed because of my dog, but Cocoa has also learned the words “banana” and “sit.” I am still working on not overthinking, and Cocoa is working on “stay,” but I am confident that together, we will get there in the end.
Banks, Banks. “The Effects of Group and Individual Animal-Assisted Therapy on Loneliness in Resident of Long-Term Care Facilities.” Institute of Translational Health Services. Pure, Scopus, & Elsevier Fingerprint Engine. 11 December 2017.
Herzog, Hal. “Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Really Work?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 17 November 2014. Web. 30 November 2017.
Ernst, Lorraine. “Animal-Assisted Therapy: An Exploration of its History, Healing Benefits, and How Skilled Nursing Facilities Can Set up Programs.”Managed Health Care Connect. HMP Communications LLC, 2 October 2014. Web. 30 November 2017.
Marino, Lori. http://www.kimmela.org/wpcontent/uploads/2012/11/AAT