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A History of Our Relationships with Animals and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)

Published on 09. 18. 2014

Dolphins Assisted Psychotherapy - Hawaii Island RecoveryHawai’i Island Recovery offers spectacular treatment opportunities that will not only help heal mind and spirit, but will create memories forever cherished as transformational.  Among them is Equine and Dolphin Therapy. There are several opportunities on this site to hear our resident expert, Eliza Wille, discuss the details and therapeutic benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy.  

Below is a brief history of our extraordinary bond with animals, and some theories why AAT  is such an effective therapeutic tool.

The Human-Animal Bond 

Animals and humans have shared a special relationship since pre-historic times. Cave paintings indicate that the earliest human-animal relationships likely occurred between wolves and cavemen.  Archaeologists suggest that, over 10,000 years ago, the wolf/dog was the first animal to be domesticated.  The dog played a large role in hunting and carrying loads, but there is little doubt that real human-dog relationships began the first time a dog responded to a pat on the head with a wagging tail. 

Animals became an early treatment tool as well.  Ancient Greeks used hippotherapy (i.e., physical therapy on horseback) to rehabilitate injured soldiers.  

They were revered and sometimes considered deities. Egyptians tamed African tabby wildcats to hunt mice and rats.  Cats went on to be pampered and worshipped.  They were known to eat from the same plate as their owners, wear valuable jewelry, and be well taken care of medically.  In fact, a story is told of how a Persian army once won victory over Egyptians by taking advantage of their reverence for cats. The Persians were besieging an Egyptian fort when their king had the brilliant idea of ordering his soldiers to throw live cats over the walls. The defending troops apparently allowed the city to be captured, rather than risk injuring the animals they knew to be sacred and which they suspected to be divine.

Even relatively modern times offer surprising believers in the power of the human/animal dynamic.  It is rumored that Sigmund Freud believed that dogs had a "special sense" that allowed them to judge a person's character accurately. His favorite chow chow, Jo-Fi, attended all of his therapy sessions.

Allegedly Freud depended on Jo-Fi for an assessment of a patient's mental state. He believed that Jo-Fi could signal a patient's level of tension by where he would lay in the room. If he stayed close to the patient, the patient was free of tension; if he lay across the room, the patient was tense. He believed  that the presence of a dog had a calming influence on all patients. It was also rumored that Jo-Fi would signal the end of Freud's sessions by pawing at the door.

Physiological/Biological changes associated with human/animal interaction

Studies indicate that AAT has definitive physical and psychological benefits:  

Oxytocin is a powerful hormone proven to elevate when we are in a situation of affection, safety, and trust. It also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and profoundly reduces the effects of stress-related hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrin; improves immune system functioning and pain management; increases trustworthiness of and trust toward other persons; reduces aggression; enhances empathy and improves learning.  

 “One of the most fundamental advantages of animal assisted therapy over other therapeutic modalities is that it provides the patient a much-needed opportunity to give affection as well as receive it. It is this reciprocity - rare among medical therapies - that makes AAT a unique and valuable route to healing."

Dr. Andrew Weil, World-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine


Video: Animal Assisted Psychotherapy


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