Animal Comfort

courtesy photo

When we take Emory, my son’s dog, to my parents’ home, the dog tends to sit unusually close to my father, who suffers from dementia. When my dad lays down for sleep, Emory eschews his usual position at the foot of the bed or floor, and insists on resting alongside him, as if he was a body pillow.

Emory’s presence gives my dad comfort.This is not uncommon. I have met many who recognize the therapeutic power of animals.

Lisa Arie, a former advertising executive, was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. She had been an Adweek Creative All-Star and produced the Advertising Hall of Fame Motel 6 commercials, with the tagline “We’ll leave the light on for you.” Yet the high-powered stress of her life was killing her. She switched gears toward ownership of Vista Caballo, a 160.acre horse ranch in Colorado. Today she is disease-free, and offers leadership development and personal transformation through 

She has worked with molecular biologists, behavioral neuroscientists, and physiology experts to understand the healing power of horses. She says, “Interacting with them has been shown to calm and engage us so much that it activates delta brain waves, which are instrumental in deep healing.” 

Lynn Moore, co-founder of Acres for Life, says she founded a horse therapy space in Forest Lake because of personal experience and “the growing body of research documenting the power of this therapy.” From a young age, she said, particularly during the loss she felt when her father died, “I knew there was something more — something deeper taking place when I was around these animals.” 

Deb Theisen, a volunteer with North Star Therapy Animals, based in St. Louis Park, says she doesn’t know the particular science of animal therapy, but simply knows it works. “I have no doubt, anecdotally.” 

Theisen is part of a North Star team of 160 pets and their owners who visit elder care facilities, hospitals, and domestic violence shelters. “Every time we visit, people are lining up to talk to the animals. They giggle. It makes them happier. They talk about how it helps them relieve stress. I see it happen all the time.” 

Pets Assisting With Healing is a volunteer service that offers therapy assistance at local Children’s Hospitals. Animals visit inpatient units, surgery areas, and emergency departments. Teams also are used to motivate children through occupational, speech, and physical therapy goals. 

Dogs are the most common therapy animal, but cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, and horses also are used in therapy. They are trained to provide affection and comfort, including in stressful situations like disaster areas. Animal-assisted activities tend to be casual visits between a therapy animal and individuals, but also can include therapeutic sessions led by a professional. 

A different level of care is provided by service animals, which are individually trained to perform tasks for specific people. They guide people who are  blind, pull a wheelchair, protect someone who is having a seizure, or calm a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, studies have tracked the ability of animals to serve a therapeutic function, such as: reduction of depression; reduced symptoms of PTSD, including an increased ability to cope with flashbacks and anxiety attacks; less frequent nightmares and sleep disturbance; lower levels of anger; and decreased reliance on prescription drugs and pain medications.

A study of 153 sexually abused children found that there was a significant decrease in trauma symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, PTSD, and dissociation. Animal-assisted therapy also has been found to help at-risk youth who struggle with substance abuse. 

Other research indicates oxytocin — informally referred to as the “love hormone” — is more present when humans interact with dogs. 

Whether it is the activation of delta brain waves, or the production of oxytocin, the science of animal therapy is less important to me than the results. For my father, my son, and myself, Emory’s presence in our lives is healing.