Man’s best friends may be more beneficial to the medical world than we think.
SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty ImagesEmeline Chancel (left), a therapist specializing in work with therapy animals, spends time with Nathan, a child with multiple disabilities, during a session of meditation with a dog named Hizzy at the “Association Caroline Binder” in Wintzenheim, eastern France, on November 13, 2015.
For the animal lovers among us, no matter how dark the world seems, pets always seem to be there to lick away our tears and ease our burdens — so much so that they sometimes make great therapy assistants in legitimate medical contexts.
Study after study published within recent years has reviewed data from dozens of sources and concluded that patients suffering from everything from Alzheimer’s to autism to schizophrenia to depression to Down syndrome receive statistically significant benefits from therapy animals in between 90 and 100 percent of cases.
While pets’ therapeutic capacities are well known at this point, what remains comparatively less known is when and why exactly we first decided to allow dogs in our hospitals.
Wikimedia CommonsYork Retreat.
The use and prevalence of therapy animals today can be traced back to a single mental health facility in northern England and one overlooked child therapist in New York.
Soon after opening in 1796, York Retreat became renowned for its humane treatment of mental health patients, which was virtually unheard of throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Unlike patients at other facilities, York’s patients were free to walk about the compound’s grounds, where many of them interacted with the small, domestic animals within its courtyards and gardens.
Doctors soon found that these animals had an astounding effect on the patients, not only serving as way to help them socialize, but also in simply perking up their fallen spirits.
In spite of these observations and the fact that a few other English facilities copied the approach, it wasn’t until the 1960s that an American child therapist by the name of Boris Levinson happened upon a similarly chance realization that laid down the foundations of modern animal-assisted therapy for years to come.
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During one of his sessions with a nonverbal little boy, Levinson’s pet dog, Jingles, happened to be in the room. At one point Levinson left the room, then came back to find the boy attempting to communicate with Jingles. The doctor was stunned.
Levinson then introduced Jingles to other nonverbal children and received similar results. The idea was that children could easily open up to a nonaggressive entity — such as an animal like a dog — without anxiety or feeling as if they were being pressured, threatened, or judged.
Although Levinson’s attempts at presenting these findings to the American Psychological Association were largely written off at the time (Sigmund Freud’s therapy work with his dog, Jofi, was, however acknowledged not too long after), he has now earned himself the title “father of animal-assisted therapy” after publishing his discoveries about the importance of human/animal bonding.
In therapy animals’ early days, when Levinson conducted his pioneering work, there weren’t too many rules and restrictions on the animals’ use and training. Today, however, with the field of animal-assisted therapy codified and overseen by entities like the American Humane Association and the ASPCA, therapy animals have their work cut out for them.
Not only must today’s therapy animals show unparalleled obedience without a lick of aggression throughout their entire history, they must also have a welcoming demeanor in order to ensure a positive experience for the patients they’ll be working with.
And, contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t apply only to dogs, but also to the guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, pigs, llamas, and even dolphins that represent just a handful of the creatures that can be trained as therapy animals of various sorts — and with the ability to operate in many different kinds of facilities — around the world today:
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Prisoners participate in the therapy with dogs program in the prison of Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, Ecuador, on October 21, 2014. The Social Rehabilitation Center of Santo Domingo employs nine trained dogs as therapy to reduce the prisoners' stress and aggression levels.RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)
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A trained dolphin interacts with a girl during a dolphin therapy session in a dolphinarium in the Crimean resort town of Alushta on April 24, 2014.YURIY LASHOV/AFP/Getty Images
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A young boy pets a therapy dog named Toby inside Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport on December 3, 2013 in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco SPCA and San Francisco International Airport joined forces to launch a new program called "Wag Brigade" that will have a team of certified therapy dogs that will patrol the airport's to help calm stressed travelers during the busy holiday travel season.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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Eight year-old Michael Dedrick-Dwyer, who has cerebral palsy and autism, takes a ride on a horse with therapist Rebecca Reubens and volunteer Kimberly Schuman on November 19, 2003 in Coconut Creek, Florida. The boy is made to ride on his back and stomach to strengthen his diaphragm (which will help him speak better), strengthen his abdominal muscles, and help him to focus longer and recognize his surroundings.Tom Ervin/Getty Images
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Emeline Chancel (left), a therapist specializing in animal-assisted therapy, works with Zinedine, a child with multiple disabilities, during a session of meditation with a rabbit and a dog named Atchoum and Hizzy at the "Association Caroline Binder" in Wintzenheim, eastern France, on November 13, 2015.SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images
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A young girl pets a therapy dog named Donner inside Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport on December 3, 2013 in San Francisco, California.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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Campers participating in the Catholic Youth Organization's (CYO) "Little Heroes" program, for kids aged 7-14 who have been directly affected by the September 11th terrorist attacks, feed a sheep and a goat in the petting zoo at the J.V. Mara camp on August 1, 2002 in Putnam Valley, New York.Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
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Trouper Hope, a pet assisted therapy dog, wears a trooper Halloween costume as he visits with hospital patients including 58-year-old Virginia Madrigal (left) at the Torrance Memorial Medical Center on October 26, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.David McNew/Getty Images
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Terminally ill hospice patient Helen Kress feeds Pisco, a 13-year-old therapy llama, during his visit to the Hospice of Saint John on September 1, 2009 in Lakewood, Colorado.John Moore/Getty Images
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A prisoner interacts with a therapy dog at Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, Ecuador, on October 21, 2014.RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
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Prisoners prepare their dogs for a session of obedience training at Hungary's Debrecen jail on February 5, 2016. This special program was launched in 2014 in order to help prisoners and troubled dogs alike to gain valuable social skills to help their reintroduction into society.PETER KOHALMI/AFP/Getty Images
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A boy swims with dolphins in a "Sea Star" dolphinarium outside Sochi, Russia on January 23, 2011, as part of a medical treatment for depression.MIKHAIL MORDASOV/AFP/Getty Images
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Sailor, a one year-old golden retriever, visits a patient who wishes to remain unidentified as part of Massachusetts General Hospital's pet therapy program on March 13, 2003 in Boston.William B. Plowman/Getty Images
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Terminally ill patient Jackie Beattie, 83, touches a dove on October 7, 2009 while at the Hospice of Saint John in Lakewood, Colorado. The dove releases are part of an animal therapy program designed to increase happiness, decrease loneliness and calm terminally ill patients during the last stage of life.John Moore/Getty Images
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Taha, a child with multiple disabilities, takes part in a session of animal-assisted therapy with a Guinea pig named Moustique at the "Association Caroline Binder" on November 13, 2015.SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images
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Dolphin trainer Adrian Calderon helps a child named Javier Gonzalez participate in a therapy session with dolphins on May 26, 2014 at the National Aquarium in Havana, Cuba.ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
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Emeline Chancel (left), works with Chahinez, a child with multiple disabilities, during a session of meditation with a rabbit named Atchoum at the "Association Caroline Binder" on November 13, 2015.SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images
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Prisoners walk therapy dogs in Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, Ecuador, on October 21, 2014.RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
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The hands of Eleanora Mende, 84, who lost the use of her legs and requires care, stroke the fur of Mogli during the cat's weekly visit at the Lutherstift senior care facility on August 6, 2014 in Berlin, Germany.Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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Disabled Mayank Doulani, 12, attends a therapeutic horse riding session at the Army Service Corps Center in Bangalore, India on August 25, 2009.DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images
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Terminally ill patient Bud Anderson holds a therapy dog named Sally Sue during a home hospice visit to his house on August 31, 2009 in Lakewood, Colorado.John Moore/Getty Images
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Prisoners interact with a therapy dog in Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, Ecuador, on October 21, 2014.RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
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Military personnel greet a therapy dog named Zeke at the Role 3 NATO medical facility at Kandahar military base, southern Afghanistan on August 19, 2011. Zeke is trained to help soldiers struggling with stress and war trauma.ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images
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Therapy Animals: Heartwarming Photos And Surprising Facts
That said, dogs remain the most common therapy animals and consistently exhibit success in improving a patient’s quality of life, whether it's in developing motor skills, building trust or facilitating communication. Cats are also a popular choice, as they’re noted for reducing anxiety in patients and are thought to be especially beneficial to nursing home residents.
Whether cats or dogs or a creature far less common, all of today's therapy animals bring with them their own unique benefits and types of treatment. It can be something as small as encouraging a depression patient to go on more walks or as monumental as teaching nonverbal children how to express themselves.
Ultimately, all of this is thanks to a single facility in England 220 years ago, and to its small group of animals, who helped open the world’s eyes to the specific kinds of compassion, patience, and therapeutic skills that it seems only animals can provide.
Next, take a look at some of the most incredible miniature therapy horses. Then, meet two of history's greatest war heroes from the animal kingdom: Wojtek the bear, the beer-drinking, cigarette-eating Polish soldier of World War II; and Sergeant Stubby, World War I's most decorated dog soldier.