Excellent New Book on Companion Animals and Mental Health

Recently I had the honor of writing the forward for an important and timely book: The Role of Companion Animals in the Treatment of Mental Disorders. Published by the American Psychiatric Association, this book is a testament to the hard work of mental health researchers and practitioners who are doing their best to find when, and how, companion animals can provide significant help to those struggling with mental challenges, including developmental disorders like ASD, and trauma-related ones like PTSD.

I hope I summed up my feelings about the importance of this work described in the book, with its excellent range of knowledge and perspectives, collected by editors Gee, Townsend, and Findling. I’ve included the Foreward below, emphasizing how important it is to know what works, know what doesn’t, and how to ask the help of companion animals without compromising their welfare. Here it is:

Timmy was never in the well.

And yet, the phrase “Lassie! Timmy’s in the well,” inspired by a 60-year old television show, lives on. It’s become a meme, passed on through generations, signifying the ability of non-human animals to rescue us from danger, or perhaps more accurately, our desire that they do so.

Many of us have felt rescued by a dog. We don’t need to be trapped in a well to wonder if we’d have made it through something–the pandemic, sexual abuse, profound grief—without a dog on our couch. However, enjoying the companionship of a strokable, sentient, emotionally-receptive mammal does not tell us if dogs, or other animals, can be constructively involved in the therapeutic treatment of mental disorders.

There are many reasons that this could be true, perhaps best suggested, at its deepest level, by the words of John Muir: “I only went for a walk, and finally, concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” The fact is, as special as we humans might be—with our busy brains and our elaborate communication—we do not “just happen to inhabit” the world, as David Abram reminds us in Becoming Animal. Other animals (and the land around them), are “as much within us as they are around us.”

Perhaps this is another way of saying that we all need to feel connected. Humans are highly-social animals, but the need to be with others is not necessarily confined to members of the same species. Biologist E.O. Wilson popularized the concept of biophilia, “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life,” while Richard Louv, in the Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” to emphasize that to be truly healthy, people need to feel close to the natural world around them, including animals, plants, and the land. This is not news to the peoples of many cultures, including members of many Native American tribes, but has, until recently, been counter to the perspective of classic Western philosophy.

At a more proximal level, we know that non-human animals are often seen as givers of unconditional love and affection. In part, no doubt this is because they can’t use human language. I have joked in many a speech that it’s a good thing that dogs can’t talk, because we wouldn’t always like what they have to say. Every animal behaviorist and dog trainer can tell you a story in which they’d bet the farm that an animal’s facial expression would translate into something unprintable. However, our perception of unconditional love is based on far more than a lack of language. As is described in detail in the Introduction and many of the chapters within, many adults and children have emotional attachments to companion animals on par with those of their siblings. Dogs, for one, can “get us coming and going,” as I write in “For the Love of a Dog.” They can provide a sense of the unconditional love we all desire from our parents, while, because of their relative helplessness, elicit feelings in us of parental love and nurturance.

These attachments are not one-directional. Social and highly-emotional animals like dogs, horses, and yes, cats, clearly form strong attachments to their humans that are often equally powerful, driven by a shared mammalian physiology that shows, for example, an increase in oxytocin during relaxed gazes between dogs and their owners. Although oxytocin is a far more complicated hormone than is sometimes portrayed in the popular press, its deficits appear to be a potentially important player in many psychiatric challenges, including autism and anxiety disorders.

But is this enough to support the idea that animals can, or should, be involved in the treatment of mental illness or developmental disorders? Or to tell us what animals? For whom? In what way? Not at all, which is why the science presented in this book is so important. Decades ago, when I was starting out as an applied animal behaviorist, the head pharmacist at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine told me that if a drug had the power to do good, it had the power to do harm. That is also true of Animal Assisted Therapy and Animal Assisted Interventions.

I remember a client I had years ago, a middle-aged devoted mother with a twelve-year old son on the autism spectrum, ASD level 3. She had adopted a dog for him, based on the recommendation of a professional, in the belief that the dog would provide companionship, and, she was promised, an increase in the child’s ability to communicate. By the time I came into the picture, the dog and the child were terrified of each other.

She wanted me to fix it. I couldn’t begin to, unless you define fixing as explaining that the situation was untenable. The dog was a highly reactive and sensitive herding breed, who barked when he became aroused at fast, erratic movements. The child was overwhelmed by the dog’s movements and barking, and flapped his arms and screamed when it happened, which set off the dog, which set off the child. It was a heartbreaking cycle of dysfunction and suffering, and an illustration of why it is vital that each case is carefully evaluated. After doing my best to explain that the situation was unfair to both her child and the dog, I was summarily dismissed. I never knew how it sorted out.

This is why the information contained in, for example, Chapter Six, “Companion Animals in the Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder,” is so valuable. As in other chapters, the authors emphasize what factors lead to successful outcomes (or failures). They summarize the results of 85 studies, which suggest that AAI can lead to increased social interactions, along with improved communication abilities, in some cases, in some environments. However, as is often the case in this field, the authors also note concerns with methodology, small sample sizes, and a lack of randomized controlled trial designs.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that one in twenty-five Americans lives with a serious mental condition, while the National Institute of Mental Health stated that in 2020, one in five adults in the United States suffered from “any mental illness.” We are in desperate need of information about how to more effectively prevent and treat these debilitating illnesses. Editors Gee, Townsend, and Findling have done prodigious work collecting state-of-the-art knowledge about when and how companion animals can be involved effectively in the treatment of mental illness, developmental disorders, and the promotion of mental health.

The information in this book is a critical antidote to two of the biggest challenges facing the AAT and AAI fields: First, the feel-good assumption that dogs, in any context and with any patient, make everything better; and second, that you can’t take HAI seriously, because, it’s “just about pets” and what is scientific about that? The answer to the latter is: A lot, thanks to the work and expertise of the authors of the book’s chapters. Their chapters are rich with case examples, practical applications, and insights about what we know, as well as what we still need to know, to make progress in the field. This book will do much to advance the fields of AAT and AAI, to remind practitioners that the welfare of the animals involved must be protected, and that companion animals, in the right context, can play a vital role in treating mental health illness and developmental disorders.

We are all “trapped in the well” to some degree, including mental health professionals who struggle to balance heavy client loads with staying current about the best ways to help them. Some people are down deeper than others, and in some cases, as we learn in the pages that follow, there are indeed Lassies out there, just waiting to assist in the rescue.

I’d love readers to join in here, and add any of their experiences related to the use of companion animals to alleviate suffering related to mental challenges, no matter what kind.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: I am rejoicing in the bird life around the farm. Robert and Roberta Robin have returned and are building a nest in the nest box Jim built. (How do I know it’s the same pair from last year? Well, I don’t, but the male came a month ago and staked out the territory around the box right away, wasted no time showing it to the female when she arrived, and she settled right in. It seems most likely it’s them, so I’m going with that.) Last night I watched Robert chase off an inquisitive House Finch, a Starling, and a Dove. Good housing is hard to find.

The back yard is a riot of color–a necklace of bright orange orioles, hyper gold goldfinches, carmine-colored cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, blue jays, and the resident modern art exhibit of chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. A raft of yellow-rumped warblers decorate the suet feeder, while even the sparrows are a delight–white-throated, white-crowned, and chipping sparrows are doing clean up duty under the seed feeders.

The photos below are from last year, I’m on “conserving energy mode,”today, so no new photos, but this gives you an idea of how colorful it can be out here. I’ve included the female cardinal because she might not be as colorful as the male, but I think she is gorgeous.

Last weekend we had a brief visit to one of my favorite trials, Nippersink or Swim, outside of Lake Geneva. I didn’t enter, but it was wonderful to see some good friends after the long winter. Best was getting a chance to let Skip set out sheep a few times. I love that he got to work, and I love doing the functional sheepdog work that trials demand. Wish I could’ve worked Maggie too, but she loves to travel and had a good time, especially with Skip as her wingman.

Here’s Mr. Wonderful waiting to get started. Please don’t tell him that he didn’t need to hold the sheep in the pen, since the gates were all closed.

One of Skip’s finer points is that he’ll “honor” another dog working. (Granted, sometimes I have to quietly remind him, with a whispered “stay there, stay there.”) In the photo below he has moved the sheep away from the pens to an area with a small amount of grain scattered on the ground. Once the sheep are set, the handler at the other side of the course sends their dog. Here’s one competitor “lifting” the sheep off the corn and beginning their run, while Skip watches patiently.

We didn’t do too many runs, but it was great fun. Mostly it’s pretty easy work, once you get the sheep pointed in the right direction, they run to the corn. However, we had one group who didn’t read the memo and tried for the woods. Wish I had a video; Skip was at his best at that moment, quiet and purposeful and totally in charge. Good boy.

These lovely creatures were in a nearby field. (You can see part of the course in the background.) Not the animals I want my dogs trying to work, thank you.

That’s it for this week. Tell us what jewel-like birds or flowers are brightening your day, and if you’ve had experience with either providing or receiving either Animal Assisted Therapy or Interventions.

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