Therapeutic dogs

There is a drug rehabilitation centre in Mumbai whose inmates read like the Who’s Who list of Society; Rich people’s sad teenage children who had a lot of money and no attention. As part of the curriculum, these teenagers go abroad twice a month, sightsee, eat well, and go to plays and films… anything to show them that life can be good as well.


This seems like the kind of place that will get repeat cases. I know one young adult on drugs who has gone back for the third time. The source of sadness is usually much more than just being ignored or mistreated in childhood or being spoilt with too much money. It is often a mental health disorder related to chemicals going awry in the brain.


Experiments taking place as I write this show that dogs might be able to correct this condition in troubled teenagers who are in residential treatment centres for drug and alcohol abuse, by beneficially improving brain chemistry.


Lindsay Ellsworth, who led the research, is a doctoral candidate in animal sciences at Washington State University. She brought dogs from the Spokane Humane Society to the Excelsior Youth Center. Teen participants were all males.


During daily recreation time at Excelsior, some of the teens played games ranging from sedentary video games to basketball. Another group interacted with the dogs, by brushing, feeding and playing with them. Before and after the activities, the teens filled an assessment called PANAS – X , 60 mood descriptions on a scale of one to five, used by psychologists to scale and study emotion.


Teens who spent time with dogs experienced heightened joy, improved attentiveness and serenity. Some of the words the boys used to describe their moods after working with the dogs were ‘excited’, ‘energetic’ and ‘happy’. Symptoms for participants being treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder dramatically decreased. In the researchers’ opinion companionship with dogs probably stimulated the release of opioids, psychoactive chemicals that can relieve pain and promote pleasurable feelings. Why do people take drugs? Certain drugs bind to opioid receptors in the brain creating chemically induced pleasure. However, repeated drug use, after a time, leaves the user lonely, depressed even suicidal.  Social companionship with dogs appears to help alleviate these negative states and act as mood boosters. Overall, sadness decreased.


The researchers described the effect on one teenager with behavioural problems. “During his first couple of encounters with the dogs, he had to learn how to control his behaviour in order not to startle the dogs. His tone and voice eventually became quieter, his stroke softer, his moves more calculated versus spontaneous, and he appeared to become more aware of himself and how he was acting.” After a few sessions with the dogs, the boy’s interactions with the staff became far more positive.


According to Ellsworth "I was surprised, during the trial period, how calm the boys were around the dogs, and at how outbursts and hyperactivity diminished,” she said. “It was something you could observe like night and day.”


If taken seriously, this could be a really cost effective way to complement traditional therapies in drug rehab centres. Not just dogs, for cat fanciers, felines also stimulate opioid release. According to the management at this teen rehab centre, this kind of science-based program should be established as part of the centres’ structured activities. Dopamine, a natural feel-good chemical human brains produce, is released in the boys' brains as they anticipate the dog’s interaction. Using natural stimuli, like dogs, could help restore the normal function of these critical chemical messengers after the brain's chemistry has been altered through drug use.


According to the researchers, dogs from shelters are far more responsive to humans than family owned dogs.


While science is just beginning to confirm the effect of animals on troubled adolescents, Karen Hawkins runs a healing farm in Maine where she takes in children and animals who are in need of healing. According to her "Some of these children had little or no nurturing when they were young. Having them help me nurture orphaned wildlife gave them some personal experiences of how nurturing should have been for them. I saw angry, sullen and sometimes downright vicious children - usually teens but sometimes younger - slowly become softer and milder in their behaviors. They began to trust more. They learned to confide their secrets to the animals and eventually that made it easier for them to begin to trust humans."


On our own continent, South Korean psychiatrists have been absorbed by the problem of almost 10% of their population between the ages of 10 to 19 being addicted to the Internet. Teenagers stay up all night gaming or watching pornography. Newly established healing centres have taken help from an unlikely source: horses. Therapists say horse-riding therapy works when other means fail. The connection between human and animal helps address emotional issues, therapists say, that are the real source of the addiction.


Can man live on this planet alone? No. His relationship to animals is really the bedrock of his emotional well being. When we remove the relationship, we destroy many mental pathways to happiness. Just as green fields and trees make you feel good, the rain and the sun and butterflies make you feel good, it is really important for our children to have animals as part of their families to make them whole people.


Maneka Sanjay Gandhi


Pl. add: To join the animal welfare movement contact,

*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*