By Lauren Suval
Growing up, I’d fantasize about what it would be like to have a dog. Besides the cuteness and fluffiness and opportunity to have an extra playpal, I rationalized that I could “talk” to this canine about my problems. And it would dutifully listen and lick my hand, and snuggle up against me whenever I felt down.
I never got the dog (and no parents, this isn’t a guilt-trip article, do not fret), but extensive research certainly illustrates that pets can be therapeutic.
In a 2012 article posted on npr.org, scientific research demonstrates the poignant emotional bond between animals and humans.
Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, explains that interaction with animals can increase our level of oxytocin, the renowned “feel good” hormone.
“That is very beneficial for us,” Johnson said. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting. Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier.”
The post also addresses how animals are utilized for psychological treatment. They’re particularly beneficial for children.
When clinical psychologist Aubrey Fine works with troubled kids, he uses dogs and even a bearded dragon.
“One of the things that’s always been known is that animals help a clinician go under the radar of a child’s consciousness, because the child is much more at ease and seems to be more willing to reveal,” Fine said.
Horses are pivotal in therapy sessions for patients with disabilities.
According to Breeanna Bornhurst, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program, horses are immensely therapeutic.
“Some of our riders might benefit from the connection and the relationship-building with the horse and with their environment,” she noted. “Other riders maybe will benefit physically, from the movements, and build that core strength, and body awareness and muscle memory.”
In addition, a WikiHow article discusses how pets may boost the spirits of depressed individuals. A pet can provide creative inspiration, become your exercise partner, or simply offer a general aura of comfort. (“Talk to your pet” is fourth on this list — perhaps my young self was onto something?)
Research also pinpoints the parallel evolution between dogs and humans.
A 2013 article on Live Science emphasizes a study that highlights how dogs split from gray wolves around 32,000 years ago. Since then, it’s been shown that domestic dogs’ digestive organs and brains are similar to the organs and brains of humans. An evolutionary origin for the tie between man and man’s best friend? Sure sounds like it.
“We all want a relationship where there are no strings,” Damien Pacheco, founder of The Reaching Branch, an online platform for positive psychology and creativity, told me.
“As the old song ‘Nature Boy’ goes, ‘the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.’ We want to learn that lesson. We want to feel that. I believe that animals have such great appeal in part because they fill much of that void.”