Who let the dogs out? (And should we let them in?)
In London, one of the biggest unwritten rules is that under no circumstances must you talk or express emotion whilst on public transport. This rule is closely followed by a necessity to walk everywhere really quickly and tutting at those who don’t follow suit.
Having a dog in London comes with many challenges, such as ensuring he doesn’t get mistaken for a fluffy coat on the floor and therefore trodden on by quick moving Londoners. However, one of the challenges I didn’t expect was myself having to break the unwritten rules of the underground by actually speaking. I very quickly had to begin responding to fellow commuters when they coo-ed, smiled and asked questions about my dog.
So, if a dog can seemingly bypass unwritten social rules of communication, break through language barriers, and instantaneously make people feel more calm, then why on earth are
we not harnessing that power to make other established interventions more successful?
Scouring through the (lack of) research on animal-assisted interventions (AAI,) the field definitely has room to grow. There are many literature reviews, but it appears a lot of the research is based on individuals’ experience of animal assisted interventions, but rarely do these have a control group to demonstrate the specific differences between regular treatment and regular treatment + animal assisted intervention in a clinical setting.
There are now various theories developing as to why AAI’s are beneficial, but the only thing that can be agreed on is that more research needs to be done. Interestingly, one of the more robust theories is that interaction with a dog causes our bodies to release oxytocin, which is a chemical that has been shown to be a kind of ‘social buffer’, helping us to better manage the stress that can come from social situations.
Having animals contribute to interventions is not for everyone and that is ok, the most important thing is what the client would find helpful. We know from research that one of the best predictors of outcome is actually therapist-client relationship right? So my curiosity is whether having an animal present can help clients to feel more safe, physically calmer and comforted and therefore improve levels of engagement with the therapist.