Pet therapy: Soothing troubled seniors

A new treatment for calming and relaxing troubled people has emerged during the past few decades. It’s known as Pet Facilitated Therapy (PFT) and it’s refreshingly simple and low-tech. The treatment involves the planned use of animal companions (usually a dog or cat) to enhance one’s mental and physical health.“It’s fair to say that Pet Therapy is a booming, mushrooming therapeutic movement,” says Sharon McMahon, a University of Windsor nursing professor who wrote her doctoral thesis on the bond between humans and animals.

Today, volunteers regularly take their animals to visit  residents of hundreds of hospitals, retirement homes and other institutions across Canada.

^Helps the withdrawn elderly
“The therapeutic effect of a friendly animal on a withdrawn person is often astounding,” says McMahon.

This is particularly true of the elderly.

A case in point is Sandra, an 80-year-old widow who resented being placed in a retirement home by her children. She refused to talk to anyone and ignored the home’s activity programs. This self-imposed alienation came to an end as a result of a visit by a volunteer, accompanied byer friendly basset hound. Sandra stroked the dog and talked to him.

“I used to have a dog exactly like you,” she confided to the animal. Over the next several weeks, as Sandra’s friendship with the animal developed, her tension, bitterness and resentment dissolved. Today, she’s a social and communicative resident of the home.

Birth of method
Modern Pet Facilitated Therapy was born 45 years ago as the result of an accidental meeting between a troubled seven-year-old boy and a dog. A New York clinical psychologist, Dr. Boris Levinson, was writing at his office desk, with his dog Jingles lying at his feet.

His first scheduled patient of the day was seven-year-old Jimmy, referred to Levinson because he was a “treatment failure” — chronically misbehaved and withdrawn.

Upon entering the psychologist’s office, the usually silent Jimmy went over to Jingles, hugged him, and began talking to him. He then asked the psychologist all kinds of questions about his pet. This breakthrough led to several productive therapeutic sessions in which Jingles continued to play a role. It resulted in a remarkable improvement in Jimmy’s behaviour.

His interest piqued by his dog’s role as a co-therapist, Dr. Levinson began to routinely use various animals in dealing with patients who were hostile and uncommunicative. He wrote several scientific papers reporting his successful results, and thus Pet Facilitated Therapy was born.

Dr. Levinson explains the basic dynamics of pet therapy: “The animal,” he says, “is a transitional object. An adult or child who is disturbed, unhappy or fearful, can first form a comfortable relationship with an unthreatening animal, then with the therapist and, finally, with other people.”