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A Brief History Of Therapy Dogs In The UK

By Brit Peacock

April is National Pet Month here in the United Kingdom, and there’s no doubt that we’re a nation of pet lovers! It’s been estimated that nearly half of all UK households own a pet, and a recent poll only served to confirm how attached we Brits are to our animals. The poll, conducted by a social networking website, found that when feeling down half of respondents would rather hug their pet than a close relative!

The fact that pets provide comfort to humans in distress should come as no surprise, because the therapeutic benefits to humans of interacting with animals has been recognised for a long time.

Records show that back in the 1700s, Quakers in England recognized the positive effects that animals could have on ill patients. The Quakers ran a retreat for people suffering from mental health problems, and they began to introduce animals to “enhance the humanity of the emotionally ill” patients who lived there.

Whilst various kinds of animals have been used for therapeutic purposes, dogs have proven to be particularly effective at providing comfort to those in physical and emotional distress. An interesting example comes from the Second World War when Smoky, a female Yorkshire Terrier who had been rescued from abandonment on the battlefield, became a therapy dog. Whilst her new owner, Corporal William Wynne, was recovering in the hospital from a jungle disease his friends took Smoky along on visits to cheer him up. The Terrier proved so popular amongst injured soldiers at the hospital that she was allowed to go on rounds, and went on to work as a therapy dog for 12 years!

During the 1970s in England an American nurse called Elaine Smith noticed the positive effect that a dog had on her patients – the Golden Retriever belonged to a chaplain and accompanied him during visits to the hospital. When she moved back to the US in 1976 Smith started an organization called Therapy Dogs International – the first national registry of therapy dogs in the US.

A charity called Pets As Therapy is today’s leading provider of animals to hospitals, care homes, special needs schools, nursing homes, and hospices in the UK. The organization was founded in 1983 and since then it has worked with over 20,000 dogs to provide therapeutic visits to countless thousands of patients and care home residents. Pets As Therapy currently has around 4500 dogs, as well as 108 cats, who visit more than 130,000 people every week. Pet owners interested in taking their animals on therapeutic visits can apply to PAT; if the dog has the right temperament then it‘s welcomed as a therapy dog and can begin providing comfort to the infirm and ill.

It has been shown that contact with a therapy dog can really help lift a person’s mood – for which there are real physical explanations. Studies have shown that simply stroking an animal can help reduce stress, because the action causes heart rate and blood pressure to lower.

Beneficial hormones and neurotransmitters can be released during a positive interaction with a therapy dog. The neurotransmitter dopamine, which improves mood, is released – as too is the hormone oxytocin, which increases empathy and is linked to pair bonding. The body may also release endorphins and levels of serotonin can increase – both of which contribute to making a person feel good.

In addition to the many positive effects on humans, therapy dogs too find the attention and affection rewarding, and share the positive feelings that come from such interactions!

About the author: Brit Peacock is a blogger and animal lover who writes about various issues relating to health.

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Posted by on Apr 16 2013. Filed under Featured, World News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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