Therapy dogs can improve mental health, but there’s a catch

Thank you, Kasey Edwards, for encouraging parents to think twice before getting a dog “for the kids” (Opinion, 26/11). Dogs are a lot of work – a lot of expensive work – and as a dog trainer I have frequently been obliged to let parents know, as diplomatically as possible, that if they think their human offspring are going to do their share, they’re dreamin’.

Dogs can be wonderful for kids who are lonely, stressed, anxious, or have trouble communicating with other humans.Credit:Hamish Hastie

But there are other reasons to reconsider bringing a dog into your home, beyond 15 years of vet bills and vomit. Like is it actually going to help your kid? And how does the dog feel about it?

Dogs can be wonderful for kids who are lonely, stressed, anxious, or have trouble communicating with other humans. In the 1960s New York psychotherapist Boris Levinson “discovered” pet therapy when an accidental encounter between a chronically withdrawn child and Dr Levinson’s own dog (Jingles, in case you were wondering, breed unknown) revealed that although the child was almost non-verbal in the company of adults, he was happy to chat with the dog.

Now therapy dogs are totally a thing, and the right dog for the right person in the right circumstances can produce wonderful outcomes. Sometimes that’s by chance, as it has been for Edwards’ friends. More often the success stories are when specifically bred and trained therapy dogs are provided with clinical support to humans with psychological or behavioural issues, whether that’s autism disorders or PTSD.

But just bringing a random dog into the house in the hope that it will “cure” your child is a fraught exercise and one that frequently ends in tears.

For one thing, the health benefits of owning a dog have been grossly overstated, as anthrozoologist John Bradshaw discusses in his book The Animals Among Us. As both a dog lover and a scientist whose specialty is the relationship between humans and animals, Bradshaw undertook a thorough literature review of the various studies touting the health benefits of dogs and discovered the actual evidence was thin at best. And a recent study by the Rand Corporation backs him up. It found people in the West who own pets are healthier because they tend to be white, middle class, financially comfortable and live in houses with backyards. Not because they own pets.

Then there’s the dogs’ side of things. All dog lovers – especially those of us who have had the pleasure of more than one dog in our lives – are prepared to accept that dogs have distinct personalities. Also that they are great observers of humans, and react to often subtle signals in our behaviour, body language and tone of voice. Or as we tend to put it, “He knows what I’m thinking!”

And yet a surprisingly large cohort is resistant to the idea that not all dogs are bluff, hail-fellow-well-met types who’ll blend seamlessly and gratefully into the family. Some are shy or sensitive or introverted. Some are downright neurotic. Almost all are exquisitely sensitive to our moods and behaviour – for domestic dogs, it’s a survival skill honed over thousands of years.

And as a trainer, for every success story where a dog has improved the lives of children who are struggling emotionally or behaviourally, I’ve seen three where the whole family has suffered because the dog has been unable to cope with the demands placed on it.

The truth is, most of the time you put an anxious kid and a dog together, and all you end up with is an anxious kid and an anxious dog.

Because dogs are not a product we buy to improve our lifestyle. They are certainly not medicine. They are living, sentient beings with their own emotional needs. And if we really loved dogs, we’d give that fact priority.

Melinda Houston is a writer and qualified dog trainer.

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