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A Doggone Good Therapist

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Recently, while reading a manual entitled, Animal Assisted Therapy and Activities (Arkow, 2004), I was startled to learn that a survey done in 1986 revealed that 57% of psychiatrists, 48% of psychologists, and 40% of family practice physicians reported that they prescribed pets for their patients to combat loneliness, depression, and other emotional problems including inactivity and stress. Dogs were the most frequently chosen, with cats a close second. Now, in 2006, the momentum toward the use of pets for health and emotional health issues has increased tremendously. In 1970, it would have been unimaginable to expect see dogs in hospitals visiting with patients. Today, most hospitals have programs through which carefully trained therapy dogs and owners visit medical and psychiatric patients in order to lift their spirits. During their hospital stay, patients report feeling more energized, less depressed, and more optimistic when visited by therapy pets. Therapy pets are being used to visit the elderly in nursing homes, children in school, children in library homework centers after school, and in reading programs to further motivate children who are learning to read. Dogs have been successfully introduced into prisons to help rehabilitate hardened criminals and into foster care agencies to bring hope to abandoned and abused children.

In addition to being useful in all the areas sited above, more psychotherapists are using pets in their psychotherapy sessions with patients. The usefulness of pets was noted many years ago when a therapist named Levinson used his dog, Jingles, in sessions with children. He was quick to notice the therapeutic effect that Jingles had on his child patients, regardless of how disturbed or non verbal and non playful they may have been prior to this.

The fact is that pets are amazingly useful in the therapeutic office with adult patients as well as with children.

Why Are Dogs Good Therapists?

There are many limitations placed on what therapists are permitted to do in and out of the therapy room. These limitations are legally, ethically, and morally binding. For example, therapists must be very careful not to touch patients unless a handshake is offered. In that case, it would be rude to refuse to shake hands. In fact, it is better for any therapist who is at all concerned about being accused of behaving in a sexually inappropriate way, to not hug a patient regardless of how happy each may feel about an achievement. It is a cardinal rule for psychotherapists to put feelings into words and not act them out. A therapist’s touching a patient can be too easily misconstrued by the patient as seductive behavior on the part of the therapist.

However, a therapy dog is another matter completely. Patients are allowed and encouraged to touch, pet, hug, caress, and stroke the dog. Doing so actually helps anxious and worried patients feel more relaxed, especially if they are beginning therapy and are unaccustomed about what to expect. Therapy dogs do not frown or have any expression on their faces that a patient may misconstrue as criticism or rejection. Instead, they provide unconditional acceptance and love.

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

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