There is increasing evidence to show that companion animals provide a source of comfort, enhance well-being and help to reduce isolation in people experiencing emotional distress or mental illness.
A growing number of people with physical disabilities and developmental impairments are being matched, by specialist organisations and charities, with carefully selected and trained assistance dogs, also known as service dogs in some parts of the world. These dogs not only provide practical assistance with every day tasks, thus enhancing the ability of their owners to lead independent lives, they also offer emotional enrichment. There are many wonderful examples of how the work of these dogs enhances the lives of their owners and a few studies exist which begin to explain how this happens. For example:
- A randomised controlled trial assessing the value of assistance dogs for people with ambulatory disabilities by Allen and Blascovich in 1996 showed significant positive changes in self-esteem, internal locus of control, and psychological well-being within six months of receiving an assistance dog. Similar improvements were found in community integration, school attendance and part-time employment
- There are an increasing number of children and their families who are also benefitting from sharing their lives with an assistance dog. A study in 2004 by Davis et al (Anthrozoos 17 (2)) found that 88% of families cited social, cognitive and physical benefits for the recipient.
Many of us with companion animals will have found ourselves, often unconsciously, deriving comfort, acceptance, and a renewed sense of well-being by simply stroking their fur, taking them for a walk, grooming or just talking to them. From these simple interactions with our animal friends, we are:
- lowering the levels of the stress hormone – cortisol
- increasing the levels of hormones that give:
– a sense of happiness and bonding (oxytocin)
– energy (dopamine)
– that feeling after you have done lots of exercise and enjoyed it (endorphin)
– elation (phenethylamine)
Research has shown how interaction with animals can benefit individuals with a range of mental health issues, including dementia and Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and trauma.
On self-reporting measures, people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome believe that their pets have the potential to enhance their quality of life (Wells, 2009, SCAS scholarship report).
Pioneering work by Joan Dalton’s Project Pooch in the USA has led to a rise in dog programmes that look to enhance the lives of the dogs – and the offenders – with the intention of reducing recidivism rates and integration into society on release. Project Pooch, a programme whereby young offenders learn to train rescue dogs who can then be placed in good homes, and in doing so, improve their own social and integration skills, continues to be very successful – a study has shown that there is a 0% recidivism rate for these young offenders years after their release.
These programmes can take many forms, from active involvement with the animals (eg training dogs) to visiting programmes whereby therapy dogs visit prisoners, to dog walking programmes for community service volunteers. There are also programmes which are more ‘passive’ eg where prisoners benefit from the presence of resident animals, such as birds, or offenders who undertake work experience at animal adoption centres, looking after the animals and also assisting with any maintenance work.
What all these programmes have in common is the premise that with thorough planning and careful selection of animals, offenders have the opportunity to learn about nurturing, respect for life and general life skills that will assist them positively in their re-integration into society.
Pet interactions: Therapeutic effects
Animal-assisted interventions are usually carried out by trained practitioners with carefully selected animals and can take many different forms. This is one of the most lively areas of research in the human-companion animal bond and there are some very interesting studies emerging which provide evidence of therapeutic effects of companion animals including for people with additional needs, such as physical or mental health issues, vulnerable older adults and children.
Visit our animal-assisted interventions section for a further information about some of these programmes, and their results.
The inclusion of a companion animal(s) in an environment or activity with the specific intention of bringing about a positive or therapeutic change in a person’s behaviour, mood or attitude can be described as an ‘animal-assisted intervention’ (AAI).