Dogs and Mental Health

by Penny Boreham

"Comfort dogs" in Newton, Connecticut

“Comfort dogs” in Newton, Connecticut

About two and a half years ago, immediately after the shooting at an American primary school in Newton, Connecticut, a group of therapy dogs was brought to the town.

They spent their time in the community- visiting schools, churches and activity centers, and also private homes. Twenty children and six adults had been killed in the attack, and scores of other children and adults had witnessed the horrific scenes both during and after the aftermath of the shootings.

It was widely recognized that the “comfort dogs” played an important part in how many of the children coped in the aftermath of the shooting, and parents revealed how their children had been able to share with and confide in the gentle dogs while still unable to express themselves or talk about their feelings to their parents. One small girl who had not spoken at all since the shootings started to talk to her mother after spending time with one of these retrievers. The leader of this scheme, which is called the “K9 comfort dogs scheme” was clear that the dogs allowed people to express themselves:-

“I think there is a common mistake made in crisis situations—people feel obligated to give some sort of answer or advice, when really those who are hurting just need to express themselves.”

Above example shows a clear relationship between dogs and mental health of humans.

PTSD and therapy dogs

There is another project in the USA where dogs work with army veterans who are experiencing military-related PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) symptoms. In this scheme, the veterans who have symptoms of PTSD train the dogs to become service dogs for other physically disabled former military personnel, and at the same time the trainer and dog form a partnership that is hugely beneficial for the trainer. One individual said of his dog: “It’s like he has a sixth sense about stress, I’m sure he knows he has a purpose, and it’s to make people like us feel better. It’s unconditional love. When you have a hard time loving yourself, he will love you.”

Inside of a dog and “umwelt”

Humans have a tendency to attribute human traits to dogs in their attempt to explain the bond they feel with the animal. In the cognitive scientist and animal behaviourist Alexandra Horowitz’s book, “Inside of a dog”, she draws on her research in the field of dog cognition to give a sense of a dog’s perceptual and mental abilities to help us understand this bond in a way that helps the reader to understand what the relationship reveals about dogs and humans.

the combination of dogs’ attention to us and their sensory prowess is explosive. We have seen their detection of our health, our truthfulness, even our relation to one another. And they know things about us at this very moment that we might not even be able to articulate. The results of one study indicate that dogs pick up on our hormonal levels in interaction with them…. Being known and predicted by our dogs is no small part in our fondness for them. If you have experienced an infant’s first smile at you as you approach, you know the thrill of being recognized. Dogs are anthropologists because they study and learn about us. They observe a meaningful part of our interaction with each other-our attention, our focus, our gaze; the result is not that they can read our minds but that they recognize us and anticipate us”

But she attempts to replace anthropomorphisms with ‘umwelt’ – in other words she wants to replace our tendency to give animals human attributes with more of an understanding of the environmental factors that contribute to an animal’s behaviour. Horowitz explains just how intimately our dogs do know us but also points out how revealing it is that we humans always wonder what that really means:-

“The dog’s gaze is an examination, a regard: a gaze at another animate creature. He sees us, which might imply that he thinks about us – and we like to be considered. Naturally we wonder, in that moment of shared gaze, is the dog thinking about us the way we are thinking about the dog?… We are known by our dogs – probably far better than we know them. They are the consummate eavesdroppers and peeping Toms.”

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read” Groucho Marx.

Unwinding from nervous system dysregulation

At Khiron House we have noticed that an occasional visitor, a gentle fellow called “Mr Dog”, can regulate people’s nervous systems astonishingly quickly. Someone who is struggling with their process and finding it hard to engage with those around them can within a few minutes of Mr Dog’s arrival start to engage again, first with Mr Dog and then slowly and surely with other people.

The nature of the dog, his/her experience of humans, the dog’s past history and of course his/her training are all of course essential components of a dog in a therapeutic situation. Dogs do seem to be able to help us to slow down and sense into ourselves. They are non- judgemental.

When our own nervous system is dysregulated we cannot react appropriately to what we perceive as external threats, and we often perceive threats as everywhere. Interaction with a gentle, attentive dog helps us to unwind from that reaction.

And, of course, it is the very fact that dogs are not human, even though as Horowitz writes they sometimes feel human to us, that makes them so perfectly suited for soothing our nervous systems. This is partly because dogs, and of course it has to be the right, gentle dog, can encourage the wordless emotional release that the children found so helpful after the Newton shootings. Human and dog partnerships can help us reconnect with ourselves when we are experiencing the symptoms of trauma, and many will vouch for the fact that their relationship with a pet dog is restorative beyond measure. The dog has the capacity – with its extraordinary “sensory prowess” – to experience us with total attention, very sensitively, and allows us to start “noticing” ourselves and our feelings.

The dog is “in the moment” and when you have experienced trauma this is one place that it is hard to be.

It is worth noting that Somatic Experiencing, one of the main therapies we use at Khiron House, was informed by Peter Levine’s understanding of how animals behave in the wild, and how they manage to discharge the bound energy in their systems after a highly stressful and life threatening event. Treatment of trauma has gained so much from Peter Levine’s insights and how he applied those insights to help humans. In a completely different way it certainly seems that our domesticated dogs have their part to play in regulating our nervous systems.

“I am because my little dog knows me” Gertrude Stein.

This is part of our series of blogs which are telling the story of trauma treatment, how it has developed and is still developing every day. In this series our expert practitioners will be sharing their knowledge with you, we will be finding out what recent scientific breakthroughs are teaching us all about the nervous system, and we will be keeping you in touch with the latest news about the life transforming therapies that are becoming more sophisticated and responsive every day.

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4 Comments

  1. Comment by H on

    Dogs help enormously, beyond the limitations of words. Especially if you find interactions with humans difficult. They understand,like nobody else can, and still accept you, without judgement. They become a lifeline. If only everybody had the opportunity to experience this.

    And some are the most amazing of ‘gentle fellows’

    Thanks for sharing this

  2. Comment by rachel on

    I would love a therapy dog full time. I hear they exist for Aspergers but they are really expensive to train so it would be unlikely I’d be able to get one. I loved reading about the ideas behind it so thank you x

  3. Comment by Teresa Hewett-Hicks on

    Dear Penny,
    We as humans so often underestimate the intelligence of our fellow animals. I
    personally have been privileged to share my home with both dog and cat friends throughout my life. I am therefore pleased to hear your recognition of the benefits to humans of relationships with dogs (and in my own experience with cats). The feel good factor that comes from the unconditional love given by a dog or cat, often surpasses that of human relationships in many cases. I believe that trust is the basis of any strong relationship and that trust promotes emotional strength and wellbeing.

    Animals who have suffered cruelty at the hands of humans and are therefore traumatised are hypersensitive and sense the same fear or apprehension in a traumatised human.
    In my opinion it is this mutual need for trust that creates the healing relationship and helps recovery from PTSD in humans. The recognition of mutual vulnerability and the need for each others trust builds this strongs human and dog \ cat relationship.

    Thank you for this interesting article.

    Teresa Hewett-Hicks BSc (Hons)

    1. Reply by Penny Boreham on

      Dear Teresa, thanks so much for this and for your valuable reflection on trust.
      Very best wishes, Penny

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