Working Dogs

Here in the United Kingdom it is National Pet Month, an annual celebration of the pleasure that animals bring to millions of devoted pet owners across the country. The UK is known as a nation of animal lovers, and it has been estimated that 48% of households have a pet. A recent poll by a social networking site highlighted UK pet owners’ devotion to their animals – half of those questioned admitted that when feeling low they prefer to hug their pets rather than a close relative![i]

The poll reflected the fact that pets can be a great source of comfort to those in distress. Animals, and particularly “therapy dogs”, have long been used in the UK to help ease the physical and mental discomfort of the ill and infirm.

Early examples of animal-assisted therapy date back to the late 18th century when a retreat run by Quakers used animals, including dogs, to “enhance the humanity of the emotionally ill”.[ii]

During World War II, a female Yorkshire Terrier named Smoky, who had been abandoned on the battlefield and rescued by a British Corporal called William Wynne, provided comfort to wounded soldiers recovering in the hospital.

And in the 1970s Elaine Smith, an American nurse working in England, observed how the Golden Retriever who accompanied the hospital chaplain during visits had a positive effect on the well being of patients. Smith moved back to the U.S. in 1976 where she founded Therapy Dogs International, the first national registry of therapy dogs in the country.

Today an organization called Pets As Therapy, founded in 1983, is the leading UK charity providing animals for therapy sessions in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and care homes. Over the years the charity has had the help of over 22,000 dogs, with around 4500 dogs (and over 100 cats) currently visiting more than 130,000 people every week. Owners who would like their pet to become a therapy dog can apply to the charity, and if the dog has a suitable temperament it will be accepted into the program and can start to provide comfort to the ill and infirm.[iii]

In addition to providing a psychological boost by improving mood, studies have shown that contact with therapy dogs has real physical benefits. Stroking a dog has been shown to reduce stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate.[iv]

Contact with an affectionate dog also promotes the release of beneficial hormones in the body, whilst reducing potentially harmful chemicals. The hormone oxytocin, associated with pair bonding, is released during interaction with a therapy dog, as too is the “happiness” neurotransmitter dopamine; the stress hormone cortisol however is lowered.

Endorphins and phenethylamine, linked to feelings of satisfaction and elation, may also be released during contact with a therapy dog, and serotonin levels raised. [v]

And the even better news is that companion animals enjoy affectionate interaction just as much as we humans, and they too benefit from the positive feelings encouraged by such encounters!

About the author: Brit Peacock is an animal lover currently writing about how pets can be used to aid health and help recovery from personal injury.

[i] Pet poll reveals owners’ affections:


[ii] Animal-Assisted Brief Therapy:


[iii] Pets As Therapy:


[iv] Benefits of the bond:


[v] Animal-assisted therapy in mental health:

Filed under: Working Dogs

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