Dog behavior therapy for many problems, including aggression, obedience issues, anxieties, social issues, phobias.
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Pet therapy: Animals as healers
Animal-assisted therapy can reduce pain and anxiety in people with a range of health problems.
By Ms. Kimberly Baff, Dip, Can. Psy.
Is medicine going to the dogs? Yes, but in a good way. Pet therapy is gaining fans in health care and beyond. Find out what’s behind this growing trend.
What is pet therapy?
Pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.
Animal-assisted activities, on the other hand, have a more general purpose, such as providing comfort and enjoyment for nursing home residents.
How does animal-assisted therapy work?
Imagine you’re in the hospital. Your doctor mentions the hospital’s animal-assisted therapy program and asks if you’d be interested. You say yes, and your doctor arranges for someone to tell you more about the program. Soon after that, an assistance dog and its handler visit your hospital room. They stay for 10 or 15 minutes. You’re invited to pet the dog and ask the handler questions.
After the visit, you realize you’re smiling. And you feel a little less tired and a bit more optimistic. You can’t wait to tell your family all about that charming canine. In fact, you’re already looking forward to the dog’s next visit.
Who can benefit from animal-assisted therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy can significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems:
Children having dental procedures
People receiving cancer treatment
People in long-term care facilities
People with cardiovascular diseases
People with dementia
Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder
People with anxiety
And it’s not only people with health problems who reap the benefits. Family members and friends who sit in on animal visits say they feel better, too.
Pet therapy is also being used in nonmedical settings, such as universities and community programs, to help people deal with anxiety and stress.
Does pet therapy have risks?
The biggest concern, particularly in hospitals, is safety and sanitation. Most hospitals and other facilities that use pet therapy have stringent rules to ensure that the animals are clean, vaccinated, well-trained and screened for appropriate behavior.
Animal-assisted therapy in action
What You Should Know About Cynophobia
Cynophobia comes from the Greek words that mean “dog” (cyno) and “fear” (phobia). A person who has cynophobia experiences a fear of dogs that’s both irrational and persistent. It’s more than just feeling uncomfortable with barking or being around dogs. Instead, this fear may interfere with daily life and trigger a number of symptoms, like trouble breathing or dizziness.
Specific phobias, like cynophobia, affect some 7 to 9 percent of the population. They’re common enough that they’re formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Cynophobia falls under the “animal” specifier. Around a third of people who seek treatment for specific phobias have an irrational fear of either dogs or cats.
Researchers estimate there are more than 62,400,000 dogs living in the United States. So your chances of running into a dog are relatively high. With cynophobia, you may experience symptoms out when you’re around dogs or even when you’re just thinking about dogs.
Symptoms associated with specific phobias are highly individual. No two people may experience the fear or certain triggers in the same way. Your symptoms may be physical, emotional, or both.
Physical symptoms include:
rapid heart rate
pain or tightness in your chest
shaking or trembling
dizziness or lightheadedness
hot or cold flashes
Emotional symptoms include:
panic or anxiety attacks
intense need to escape situations that trigger fear
detached feeling from self
loss of control
feeling you may pass out or die
feeling powerless over your fear
Children have specific symptoms as well. When exposed to the thing the child fears they may:
have a tantrum
cling to their caregiver
For example, a child may refuse to leave a caregiver’s side when a dog is around.
You may or may not be able to hone in on exactly when your fear started or what first caused it. Your fear may come on acutely due to a dog attack, or develop more gradually over time. There are also certain situations or predispositions, like genetics, that may put you at higher risk of having cynophobia.
Specific risk factors may include:
Experience. Did you ever have a bad experience with a dog in your past? Maybe you were chased or bitten? Traumatic situations may put you at risk for developing cynophobia.
Age. Phobias affect both children and adults. In some cases, specific phobias may first show up by age 10. They can begin later in life as well.
Family. If one of your close relatives has a phobia or anxiety, you may be more likely to develop irrational fears as well. It may be inherited genetically or become a learned behavior over time.
Disposition. You may be at higher risk of developing phobias if you have a more sensitive temperament.
Information. You may be at risk for developing cynophobia if you’ve heard negative things about being around dogs. For example, if you read about a dog attack, you may develop a phobia in response.
To be formally diagnosed with a specific phobia like cynophobia, you must have experienced your symptoms for six months or longer. If you’ve noticed your fear of dogs has started to impact your daily life, you may want to keep a personal journal to share with your doctor.
Do I excessively anticipate situations in which I’m going to be around dogs?
Do I immediately feel fear or have a panic attack while I’m around dogs or think about being around dogs?
Do I recognize that my fear of dogs is severe and irrational?
Do I avoid situations in which I may encounter dogs?
If you answered yes to these questions, you may fit the diagnostic criteria set by the DSM-5 for a specific phobia. Your doctor can help.
Once you make an appointment, your doctor will likely ask you questions about the symptoms you’re experiencing, as well as questions about your psychiatric and social history.
Not all phobias require treatment by your doctor. When the fear becomes so intense that you avoid parks or other situations where you might encounter dogs, there are a variety of options available. Treatment includes things like therapy or taking certain medications.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be incredibly effective at treating specific phobias. Some people report results in as few as 1 to 4 sessions with a therapist.
Exposure therapy is a form of CBT where people face fears head-on. While some people may gain benefit from in vivo exposure therapy, or being around dogs in real life, others may gain a similar benefit from what’s called active imaginal exposure (AIE)Trusted Source, or imagining themselves performing tasks with a dog.
In a study from 2003, 82 people with cynophobia went through either in vivo or imaginal exposure therapies. Some people were asked to attend therapy where they interacted with dogs on leashes, while others were asked to simply imagine doing different tasks with dogs while acting them out. All people showed significant improvement after exposure, whether real or imagined. The improvement rates for in vivo therapy were 73.1 percent. The improvement rates for AIE therapy were 62.1 percent.
The researchers concluded that AIE is a good alternative to in vivo therapy.
Psychotherapy is generally effective at treating specific phobias like cynophobia. For more severe cases, medications are an option that may be used together with therapy or short-term if there’s a situation where you’ll be around dogs.
Types of medications may include:
Beta blockers. Beta blockers are a type of medication that block adrenaline from causing symptoms like racing pulse, elevated blood pressure, or shaking.
Sedatives. These medications work to reduce anxiety so you may relax in feared situations.
If your cynophobia is mild, you may benefit from different lifestyle choices that can help alleviate symptoms triggered by your fears. Try different relaxation techniques when you feel anxious, like engaging in deep breathing exercises or practicing yoga. Regular exercise is another powerful tool that may help you manage your phobia in the long term.
For more severe cases, see your doctor. Treatments like behavioral therapy are generally more effective the sooner you start. Without treatment, phobias may lead to more serious complications, like mood disorders, substance abuse, or even suicide.
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