Pets as therapists: Exploring emotional benefits of dogs, cats

January 11, 2016

Julie Barton was sitting on the couch one day with her head in her hands, utterly defeated by the severe depression that filled her with sadness and self-loathing, when she felt an unexpected warmth in her toes. Her fluffy red golden retriever puppy, Bunker, was sitting on her feet.

"He leaned against me, and it seemed to me to be very deliberate," she says. "He looked at me like, ĎAre you better?í or ĎDid that help?í and I thought, ĎEither Iím going totally crazy, or he sees me.í And I decided to do one hopeful thing, which was to trust that feeling."

Bartonís new memoir, "Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself," joins a growing list of books, both fiction and nonfiction, that highlight the role pets can play in emotional healing. While the iconic pets of the past ó Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Benji, "That Darn Cat" ó saved humans from physical dangers, the furry heroes of books such as the national best-seller "Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him" (Hachette) and the novel "The Dog Who Saved Me" (St. Martinís Press), help their owners fend off depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Science is moving in the same direction, with research suggesting that dogs bring down stress levels, encourage physical activity and reduce depression.

In the typical study, depressed people who get conventional treatment are compared with depressed people who get conventional treatment as well as interaction with a pet, often a dog that is included in therapy sessions, says psychologist Stanley Coren, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and author of "Do Dogs Dream?: Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know" (W.W. Norton).

"The results are almost always the same: You get anyplace between a 30 percent and a 50 percent added improvement in the reduction of depression scores (with pets), so itís quite huge," Coren says.

Questions remain: A 2014 review of the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy for the elderly ("The Benefit of Pets and Animal-Assisted Therapy to the Health of Older Individuals" in Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research complained of the "poor methodological quality" of pet therapy studies and pointed to issues such as small sample sizes, and lack of adequate controls and comparison groups.

"Despite over four decades of research, these studies remain preliminary," the authors wrote.

Barton, whose memoir covers an episode of severe depression when she was in her early 20s, got married in 2000 and lives in Piedmont, Calif., with her husband, their two children, ages 8 and 11, and an energetic terrier named Jackson (shelter name: Action Jackson). Bunker died in 2007 at age 11, but he remains a big presence in Bartonís life. Speaking from her home office, she said she was surrounded by photos of Bunker.

"Itís like a shrine in here," she quipped.

GROWING AUDIENCE

"Dog Medicine" appears to have hit a nerve: The first 2,500-copy printing sold out in a day, Barton says, and more than 5,000 additional copies have been printed.

"We sold rights to Korea, to Holland. The U.K. is interested," she says. "Thereís lots of chatter, and I think itís really resonating."

In the course of promoting the book, she has heard stories of emotional healing from cat-, dog- and horse-lovers. And, at a talk in California, a middle-age man approached her on the verge of tears.

"My daughter is very depressed. Sheís 20, and sheís coming home to live with us," she recounts the man telling her. But there was one bright spot: "She has a therapy rat. Itís the most incredible thing."

"Is it a trained rat?" Barton asked him.

"No," the man told her. "They are just extraordinarily connected. Something about having this living creature with her by her side all the time is really healing for her."

For Barton, now 42, the road to recovery involved medication, counseling and strong family support, as well as bonding with Bunker.

She was 22, an Ohioan living far from home in New York and weathering a painful breakup, when the negative thoughts that had long assailed her took on a scarier tone: "Walk into the path of that cab," she would think. "Step in front of that oncoming bus." The thoughts told her she was "worthless, dumb, ugly and weak. Wrong in every way. Wrong for being alive."

After she collapsed on the kitchen floor with a pot on the stove and woke up to a room filled with smoke, she called her mother. Her parents brought her home, found a psychiatrist and gently pressed her to take the antidepressant Zoloft. When she told them one thing that might help was a puppy, her parents helped make that happen too.

A WAY TO CONNECT

Bunker offered uncomplicated love and loyalty, which was vital, Barton says. As her mood stabilized, he also helped her go back out in the world again.

"Depression is a very isolating disease," she says. "In New York, I would walk down the sidewalk thinking I was completely alone on an island of millions of people, because people didnít acknowledge you, or if they did, it was with a rude push or a mean look.

"When you have a dog, doors open, social doors. People go, ĎOh, how sweet! How old? Whatís his name?í You talk about your dog experience, and itís a real ice breaker for someone who may not be as adept at social interactions. I loved going out because people would talk to me. It made me so happy."

In her book, Barton describes how, with Bunkerís help, she was able to move across the country, make friends, and eventually get a job and find love.

Today, she says, sheís doing very well. Her depression is a chronic condition, but medication works well for her, and she keeps an eye out for the "sinking" feeling that tells her to seek additional support from her doctor, her counselor or her husband.

"I havenít had a major episode (of depression) in six or seven years," she says. "It was pretty hard after Bunker died, but I had young kids, and that helped keep me occupied ó in a good way."

 

 





 


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