The History of Animal-Assisted Interventions

Animal therapy has been around for a very long time. There are records of American physicians using horses to help patients in the 17th century. In the late 1600s, philosopher and physician John Locke suggested that small pet animals aided in the social development of children, including supporting the development of empathy.

The first intentional involvement of animals in a therapeutic process is believed to have been started in 1792 by a man named William Tuke at a Quaker facility in York, England. He created this approach to provide humane treatment for people suffering from mental illness by having the patients at the facility care for the many farm animals. Tuke used farm animals such as rabbits and chickens to relieve his patients’ anxiety and lessen the use of drugs. It was theorized that the combination of animal contact plus productive work would facilitate the patient rehabilitation.

In the 1870s in Paris, a French surgeon had patients with neurological disorders ride horses. The patients reportedly displayed improved motor control and balance and were less likely to have bouts of depression. In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale noted that small pets relieved depression in patients. It has also recently been discovered from Sigmund Freud’s notes that he often had his dog, a Chow Chow named Jofi, in his office during psychotherapy sessions. The dog was originally in the room as a comfort for Freud who claimed that he was more relaxed when the dog was nearby. However, Freud soon began to notice that the presence of the dog also helped his patients- both adults and children. The difference was most noticeable when Freud was dealing with children or adolescents who were more willing to talk openly about difficult issues when the dog was in the room.

There has been a long history of dogs assisting blind people, but it was not until after World War I that a formal guide dog program was developed. In World War II, the American Red Cross enlisted farm animals to aid World War II veterans when they returned from the battlefield. In addition, in 1945 the Humane Society started a program to provide therapy dogs to World War II veterans.

In the 1960s, Dr. Boris Levinson was the first in the United States to discover pet therapy at Saint Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, D.C. and is credited for being a pioneer in animal-assisted therapy. He discovered that when his dog Jingles was in the room for a child’s therapy session, the sessions were much more productive. Dr. Levinson also discovered that children who were withdrawn and had difficulty communicating were more at ease when Jingles was present, and often made real attempts to engage in conversation. Levinson believed that sessions with Jingles as his “co-therapist” established an atmosphere of trust and helped develop a solid relationship with his patients.

These days, animal-assisted therapy is used to help treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, speech impairments, emotional disorders and addictions. In fact, there is a growing body of research that continues to show that contact with a therapy animal can help improve both a child and adult’s physical, mental, emotional and social state, which in turn will help them better engage and participate in the therapy process and ultimately assist with their treatment.

According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, “people are happier and healthier in the presence of animals. Scientifically-documented benefits of the human-animal bond include decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and enhanced feelings of well-being.” Using an animal in therapy increases oxytocin levels in the brain which is recognized for its role in bonding, socialization, and stress relief by creating a sense of calm, comfort and focus. Research has also shown that animals can change the levels of cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine which induce a reduction of arterial pressure and cardiorespiratory rates.