Animal Magnetism: Pets as Therapy

Photo by Libby Webber

It’s been known for centuries that animals have an important part to play in promoting feelings of wellbeing amongst people with emotional problems or physical ill-health. And it doesn’t have to be in a formal setting either; making positive contact with other people, and the good feelings this can foster, can sometimes be an awful lot easier if you have a four-legged friend alongside you.

At the counselling and therapy centre where I work, we’ve an additional resource who is proving quite beneficial to some of the clients, as well as some of the therapists. The resource in question is my dog, Chester, who often comes with me these days when I go to work. He lies sleepily in my office, rousing himself to say hello to visitors and then returning to the rug to lick his paws or have another doze. He’s quite an old boy now, sedate in his senior years.

I never expected to bring Chester to work, especially since as a youngster, he was just too boisterous to be allowed to wander around the way he does now. When I’m with a client, he waits in Reception, keeping a close eye on my door and instantly alert to any sign that it might be opening. He doesn’t like to be too far away from me, but he’s still curious about what goes on around him.

The people who come for counselling seem to like seeing Chester too. I always check that they’re happy for him to go over and say hello, and so far no-one seems to mind. In fact, on the occasions that I don’t have him with me, one or two people have asked where he is. One of my therapist colleagues told me recently that for one client in particular, petting Chester in Reception while he waited for his session had been quite therapeutic; it had helped this client connect in a positive way with another creature.

Pets, of course, have a hugely valuable role to play in health care settings such as hospitals, care homes and hospices, where the therapeutic benefits of being in contact (physical and emotional) with animals are well-known — with reduced stress, improved feelings of wellbeing, and a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure being some of the known benefits.

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There has been a great deal of academic research over many years into the efficacy of animals in therapeutic settings. I recently came across a book by Aubrey H Fine, a psychologist and motivational speaker, who has for many years used animals in his work with children with learning disabilities and in working with parent/child relationship problems. In his foreword to the Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy , (which also provides an excellent overview of the theory, research and practice of animal-assisted therapy), Fine describes the fascinating shift over the last 150 years or so in our relationships with the animal world: the transformation of agriculture from small-scale relationships between humans, food animals and the land into the large-scale, industrialised production of animal flesh for consumption, and the consequent decline of close husbandry relationships with livestock as people deserted the land in search of work. While the bonds between food animals and humans became ever more distant, new concerns arose — about the ethical treatment of animals and the protection of endangered species. Pet ownership increased as dogs and horses in particular were kept as pets, companion animals or for leisure pursuits rather than as working members of the household or village.

While humans in the developed world have largely devolved responsibility for rearing food animals to a specialised and industrialised few, we still seem to feel the need for close relationships with our non-human animal relatives. And these relationships can be deeply therapeutic. There are several organisations in Britain and the UK who provide equine-assisted learning and therapy, in particular for certain groups of people who can be difficult to reach with ‘conventional’ therapeutic methods. These include, for example, people with eating disorders, low self-esteem, ADHD and learning disabilities, and also young offenders whose lives can be turned around by the experience of learning to work as a team with other young people and, most importantly, with the horses themselves. So there’s an extraordinary potential for great power and depth in our close relationships with animals.

And it can lead to closer relationships with other humans too: I know from my experience of taking Chester for walks over the years just how much of an ‘ice-breaker’ having a friendly pet is when you’re out on your own somewhere. Dogs — like young children — don’t observe social etiquette or the rules of polite behaviour; if Chester decides that he wants you, a total stranger, to throw his frisbee for him, then you’ll soon find the frisbee at your feet and Chester gazing expectantly up at you. What usually follows is a friendly conversation between me and whoever Chester’s ‘victim’ might be. It angers me when I read about people parading their ‘trophy dogs’ — dogs whose purpose is to lend a spurious ‘status’ to their owners and make them seem like tough guys, while instilling fear into others. That’s not about fostering good relations with people; that’s about keeping them at a distance.

Although Chester is not officially a ‘therapy dog’, I’m glad to know that he’s playing his own small part in fostering a welcoming therapeutic atmosphere at our counselling centre, and — if nothing else — offers a friendly distraction for people while they wait for their therapy session.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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