Dogs and humans have been engaged in a dance of interdependence for over 10,000 years. There are a wide variety of theories about how the contact got started, but the benefits to both species have been massive. From half-wild scavengers cleaning up the streets in impoverished places to bomb-sniffing canine heroes, dogs have shown a remarkable ability to adapt themselves to our needs in ways we're just beginning to understand.
The value of dogs in healing was first formally articulated during World War II, when Corporal William Wynne took an abandoned terrier under his wing. Smoky went with the corporal into battle; when he was taken ill, his buddies knew Smoky would cheer him up. Smoky turned out to have such a calming and pleasing effect on the other soldiers on the ward that Dr. Charles Mayo, a descendant of the Mayo Clinic founders, hired him to make rounds. A nurse, Elaine Smith, watched the whole thing and decided to replicate it on the home front.
These days, more is known about exactly what happens when human skin touches warm fur. Blood pressure drops, as do blood levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are anxiety-related neurotransmitters. Endorphins and oxytocin, the body's happy highs, spike up. Anxiety and aggression fade.
Scratching an Itch
"There was an elderly lady who'd had a knee replacement and wasn't doing well," says Kevin Tait, a dog breeder and trainer in Bangor, Michigan who certifies therapy dogs for obedience through the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program. "She was anxious and depressed and they were concerned that her body was rejecting the replacement knee. They brought in this massive Great Pyrenees and as soon as she sank her fingers into his coat, her blood pressure went down. She started to heal pretty much right away.
"The dog won, too," says Tait. "She wore her fingernails long, and she could scratch him all the way down through that thick fur to his skin. She'd scratch all over his head and neck and shoulders. As soon as he got to that hospital, he'd head straight for her room."
Therapy dogs are not to be confused with service dogs, the federally protected personal aides who accompany people with various disabilities and work one-on-one. A therapy dog is a canine with the common touch, able to relate well to pretty much anyone and keep his or her cool under almost any circumstances. And beginning in the last quarter of the twentieth century, with the formation of organizations like the Delta Society (rechristened Pet Partners) and Tender Loving Zoo, it's been realized that dogs can help in an almost unlimited variety of stressful situations.