How Animals Can Help Combat Mental Illness

Patients at the Priory’s Hospital in Bristol are benefiting from the company of a “therapy dog” to help with their treatment for stress, anxiety, and depression.

Lara, a rescue dog from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (BDCH), is introduced into some therapy sessions by her owner Daniel Fryer, a senior qualified psychotherapist.

Where appropriate and where patients are keen, they are able to interact with the dog, and some choose to pat and stroke, or groom and hug, Lara as they participate in therapy. This helps provide comfort in moments of distress, and helps to rebuild self-esteem.

Daniel said: “Lara works as a great ice breaker in one-to-one and group therapy sessions. She lifts the spirits of patients on ward visits. Petting or stroking a dog does wonders for your blood pressure and stress levels.”

Daniel believes the reason that Lara is such a success with his patients is because “they don’t feel judged by a dog, who is able to display unconditional acceptance, and they feel more confident to confront their issues”.

Pet-assisted activities encourage patients to have conversations with their therapist, as well as with their fellow patients. This can be helpful in promoting social interaction and breaking down barriers, emotionally and in a social context.

Animals can trigger the release of endorphins, a feel-good neurotransmitter which gives a calming effect and boosts the level of serotonin, a chemical linked with happiness and well-being.

By directing one’s attention towards another living thing, a patient’s focus is drawn away from his or her own difficulties and, for a while, they can distance themselves from their distress and then begin talking about their own issues and consider ways forward.

In this way, pet-assisted therapy enables a patient to work with a professional towards attaining clinical goals.

Universities worldwide are turning to therapy dogs to relieve their students’ pre-exam nerves and first-term homesickness.

And studies have found that just the presence of a dog can help lower levels of stress and anxiety. A recent Dogs Trust survey found that 95% of dog owners in Britain believe that interacting with their dog made them happier, with 89% saying they talk to their dog when no one else is around1.

Some experts say the presence of an animal in a hospital environment helps patients feel more at home.

Lara is registered with Pets as Therapy as a therapy animal. There are around 6,300 Pets as Therapy dogs visiting hospitals, residential nursing homes and special needs schools in the UK2.

A therapy dog is different from an assistance dog, which will have special training to provide support for someone with a disability, or for someone living with conditions such as epilepsy. “A therapy dog needs to be calm and react well to other people’s tears, sudden noises and movements,” said Daniel. “They mustn’t get too excited about human contact but equally can’t be too laid back.”

Daniel added: “Lara is a fantastic therapy dog and provides comfort to patients in moments of distress. One time, during a therapy session, she sat in front of the lady. Instinctively my patient leant forward to give Lara a cuddle. Afterwards, the lady in question told me that actually what she had really needed at that moment was that cuddle and it made me realise that Lara sensed that.

“There is little doubt in my mind that Lara helps build trust between myself and a client, helps reduce stress, boost self-esteem and generally improve mood. A lot of my therapy sessions have been conducted with the client happily sitting on the floor cuddling and stroking Lara. She gets more feedback on our feedback forms than I do!

“Staffordshire Bull Terriers are effective as therapy dogs because, despite their fearsome reputation and the bad press they sometimes receive, they are very loving and very people-orientated. All my Staffie wants out of life is a big cuddle.”

Adam Lampitt, Hospital Director at Priory’s Hospital in Bristol, said: “We love having Lara at the hospital and she really brightens everyone’s day, both patients and staff. She is brilliant when patients are feeling stressed and anxious by providing them with love and attention. We always check that our patients are happy to have her in their session before she is bought in and she has proved to be a popular member of our team.”

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