There is no question: if you have ever owned or been around a dog, you know that they seem to have some sort of loving superpower. With their warm, wet noses, and their fluffy coats, they have the ability to heal the soul in times of turmoil.

After the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, therapy dogs were brought into Newton, Connecticut almost immediately. Groups of teenagers and children all around the city began to open up and discuss their fear and grief with one another, all while stroking the same golden retrievers. The therapy dogs—or professional comforters—were used as a sounding board for kids and adults grieving after this terrible experience. Kids would talk with the dogs, and the dogs would listen, all while demonstrating a much-needed expression of unconditional love.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has helped people all around the world cope with mental and physical pain. Here’s how they do it:

A History of Healing

AAT is not new. In fact, the bond between humans and canines can be traced back thousands of years. Dogs descended from wolves and have been attracted to humans ever since we began living in settlements. Groups of people congregating initially gave dogs access to food scraps. This created a drive for wolves to want to live near humans. The least aggressive animals were the ones that could do this most effectively, and they essentially self-domesticated over time.

During the early 1930s, Sigmund Freud began using his own dog during his psychotherapy sessions. He noticed that if his dog stayed close to the patient, he or she was relatively free of tension. If the dog was far from the patient, it meant that the individual was very tense. Freud found that his patients felt more comfortable initially talking about their problems through his dog until they felt comfortable speaking to him directly.

In the 1960s, child psychologist Boris Levinson discovered that a disturbed, nonverbal nine-year-old boy began communicating when Levinson’s dog sat with them during the therapy sessions. He observed similar results in children who had difficulty communicating. Levinson presented a paper at an American Psychological Association meeting on his observations, but he was not taken seriously until Freud’s experiences with his dog came to light years after his death. Levinson went on to write Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy, eventually becoming known as the father of AAT.

In 1989 a well-known animal education group called Pet Partners developed a certification program that ensured animals were proficient in providing AAT. The recommendations made by Pet Partners have continued to be used as a therapy guideline today. While there are specific breeds that do best as service dogs, any dog really can bring about a sense of relief for suffering patients.

Whole Body Healing

Providing patient-centered care is essential for the success of a recovering injury, medical condition, or psychological illness. Integrating dogs into animal-assisted therapy has helped patients around the world heal or lesson the burden of their diseases.

Stanley Coren, a Ph.D. psychology professor at the University of British Columbia says that when you interact with a friendly animal like an AAT-trained dog, your blood pressure lowers and your muscles are able to relax. In recent years, studies have shown that dogs can have an impact on a person’s cardiovascular health. One of the earliest studies done on dogs was published in 1980 and found that pet owners who had a heart attack lived longer than those who did not.

A Japanese study found that pet owners made 30 percent fewer doctor visits than those without furry companions. And a study out of Melbourne, Australia showed that of 6,000 participants, owners of dogs had lower blood pressure, heart attack risk, and cholesterol levels.

The overall whole body benefits of AAT are still largely unknown, but the National Institute of Health has recently created a research program funded by Mars, Inc. to study human-animal interaction. The program is run through the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and offers scientists grants to study the effects dogs have on public health.

Mental Health Healing

Mental illness has the potential to affect virtually anyone, and in recent years dogs have proven to help those suffering from mental illnesses. They have been shown to reduce childhood anxiety, social anxiety, and separation anxiety. Director for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, Alan Beck, said that all animals keep us focused on the present and help to distract us from negative or anxious thoughts and feelings. This can also help reduce feelings of loneliness and depression.

People benefit significantly from interacting with dogs. Just petting a canine has been shown to decrease stress hormones, lower blood pressure, and regulate breathing. Studies have shown that the simple act of petting a dog has been associated with bonding and affection, releasing oxytocin, serotonin, and prolactin in the brain. At the same time, petting a dog can also lower levels of cortisol—the hormone associated with stress.

The United States Department of Defense pairs up dogs with soldiers returning from war, and these dogs are trained to nuzzle their owner when they sense a panic attack coming on. Clearly the health of pet owners can be attributed to a variety of factors, but experts believe that companion and AAT animals improve health by, at the very least, lowering stress.

Owning a dog gives you a sense of purpose that can help increase positive feelings and lower overall stress levels. This alone has significant health benefits. By owning a dog, you become his or her lifeline by feeding and caring for them. These simple-but-important responsibilities can help to keep your mind occupied constructively, which can aid in removing feelings of negativity.

Dogs can be a lifeline for individuals suffering from physical or mental illnesses. While most studies support the benefits of AAT and companion animals, there is still more research that needs to be done to solidify the knowledge we have about dogs’ abilities to heal. We know for sure, though, that getting a hug from a fluffy friend can reduce stress, and that alone is worth all the cuddles in the world!

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