Dogs: Current trends in clinical psychology

Currently in the field of clinical psychology, there are a lot more dogs showing up in the clinic. Sometimes the dogs are there to help humans feel better, and sometimes the humans are trying to make the dogs feel better. Whether it is animal-assisted therapy or animals in therapy, there are some interesting findings and considerations emerging.

Dogs as the therapists

Not only is dog man’s best friend, but maybe in some cases dogs are man’s new therapist. The use of dog-assistant therapy is currently on the rise. There are therapy dogs in nursing homes, service dogs helping people with extreme anxiety, therapy dogs on college campus to reduce stress during finals weeks. The use of dogs has been found to produce improvement in mental health treatment programs, including programs for returning soldiers with PTSD, programs for children with developmental disorders, and programs for individuals with mood and anxiety problems. A recent review by Beetz and colleagues (2012) highlighted many of the possible benefits of human-animal interactions found in 69 research studies. They found that dogs help individuals:

1)      Socially. There is strong evidence that interaction with dogs improves social attention, increases ability to interact interpersonally, and improves mood towards social situations. There is some evidence that interaction with dogs might increase trust and reduce aggression.

2)      Emotionally. There is strong evidence that interaction with dogs lowers stress levels (self-report and physiologically), boosts positive mood, reduces depression, and reduces anxiety,

3)      Physically. There is strong evidence that interaction with dogs improves cardiovascular health. There is some evidence that interaction with dogs might improve pain management and boost immune system functioning.

These effects were found for children, adults, and older adults, as well as for those with special medical and mental health conditions and those without.

The authors believe that many of these effects could be due to these interactions with dogs facilitating the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding. A number of the studies reviewed found that when a human engages with a dog – petting the dog for example - oxytoxin levels increase both in the human as well as the dog. And to this point comes my next section:

Dogs as the patients

Dogs’ oxytocin response to human interaction mirrors our response to them. As much as dogs differ from us – their 4-legged walk, their limited vocabulary, their expression of emotion in the rear instead of the face – biologically dogs are not so different from humans. Just as humans exhibit depressed mood and anxiety, dogs can also experience what looks to us like depression, anxiety, and multiple other psychiatric issues. So just as we help humans with these issues through behavioral therapy and medications, these options are also increasingly becoming available to our canine counterparts. Dr. Karen Overall’s book Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats published this year covers how to approach diagnosing dogs and a whole host of treatment options available for dogs with behavioral diagnoses, such as separation anxiety and obsessive compulsive behaviors, as well as for dogs who simply engage in problematic behaviors, such as digging, barking, and biting.  Treatment approaches for dogs can be surprisingly similar to those for humans, both in the therapeutic approaches with, for example, relaxation exercises and even cognitive therapy, as well as in the pharmaceutical approaches with anti-depressants, anti-anxiety agents, etc.

Considering how similarly dogs can be to humans as patients, we need to remember that wellbeing for all of us is the result of multiple influences, environmental, social, neurobiological, etc. So as much as some dogs really might benefit from medications, dog owners should always consider other factors that might be affecting their dog’s mood. For example, human depressed mood can be alleviated by exercise to some degree, while more extreme cases might require medication. So if your dog is seeming down lately, consider environmental changes too – maybe your dog needs more time outside, maybe your dog is spending too much time alone. Books such as Dr. Overall’s manual provide a wide range of alternative approaches, such as environmental changes, behavioral conditioning, dietary supplementation, etc.  The quickest fix is not always addressing the root problem; this applies to us as humans and our dogs.

Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in psychology3.

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.