Go to any hospital, retirement home, or even school and there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find at least one therapy dog* working their magic. These working dogs have become commonplace in today’s society, but it wasn’t so long ago that the idea of them was almost laughed out of the room.
The idea of therapy dogs was first introduced in the 1960’s by child psychologist Boris Levinson. During a talk he gave at an annual psychological conference, Levinson spoke about a breakthrough he had while working with a child patient.
When Levinson’s dog, Jingles, was in the room for the child’s therapy sessions, he noticed that the sessions were much more productive.
The difference was so noticeable that Levinson began bringing Jingles into other children’s therapy sessions. He quickly discovered that children who had difficulty communicating seemed much more at ease when Jingles was present, often making real attempts at conversation.
Levinson began to collect data on these cases, forming the basis of the paper that he gave his talk on at the psychology conference. Unfortunately, the audience did not see the merit behind his work, and heckled him with questions like “What percentage of your therapy fees do you pay to the dog?”
This unfortunate reaction from the psychology community might have stopped the development of animal-assisted therapy in its tracks, if it weren’t for a well-respected individual supporting the idea from beyond the grave (spooky, right?).
At the time of Levinson’s talk, several new biographies had been published about the renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud, which included translations of numerous letters and journals. These new publications were giving the psychology world further insights into Freud’s life and work, including the fact that he often had his Chow Chow, Jofi, with him during psychotherapy sessions.
In his journals, Freud explained that his original purpose in bringing Jofi into the therapy room was to help calm himself, but he quickly noticed a difference in his patients when the dog was present. Children and adolescents, in particular, were more willing to talk openly and about painful issues when Jofi was in the room.
It quickly became clear that Levinson wasn’t the only one who had the experiences he shared at his poorly received talk. Freud himself had experienced the phenomena Levinson spoke of decades earlier – a realization that sparked a new interest in animal-assisted therapy. In 1969, Levinson went on to write a book titled “Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy”, solidifying his place as the father of animal-assisted therapy.
H/t to Psychology Today
*It’s important to note the distinctive differences between therapy dogs and service dogs. The biggest is that a service dog is typically not a pet; it is an animal that has undergone extensive training to provide assistance for the benefit of a person with a disability or limitations. Service dogs are protected under the law, giving them the right to enter locations that other animals are not permitted.
A therapy dog, on the other hand, is trained to provide comfort and affection to individuals in long-term care, retirement homes, schools, and other stressful situations. Their main purpose is to provide individuals with animal contact, whether or not they have a disability. Often, therapy dogs are owned by their handler, who may consider it a pet first. It’s also important to note that therapy dogs do not have the same legal rights as service dogs.