Whether you have a hamster or a Great Dane, pets have provided us with comfort, friendship, exercise, protection and emotional stimulation for thousands of years. Evidence of dogs walking alongside men as their companion can be traced back 26,000 years ago, and animal welfare and the sentient nature of animals has been a topic of discussion since the 19th century.
The obvious front runner in the race to become man’s best therapist is, of course, man’s best friend. Dogs have come to our aid in many ways: guide dogs, guard dogs, bomb sniffer dogs – they’ve even been found to detect cancer. It’s only quite recently, however, that dogs’ therapeutic value has been recognised – the first therapy dog is said to have been Smoky the Yorkshire Terrier in 1944. This charming little canine helped to raise the spirits of wounded American soldiers fighting the Japanese in the Pacific and even pulled a communications cable through a tunnel, meaning that troops didn’t have to lay it in open ground under enemy fire, saving countless lives.
Studies have shown that the presence of or interaction with a dog, especially a subject’s own pet dog, produces oxytocin in the brain, also known as the ‘happy hormone’. While this is not news for dog people, this effect goes far deeper, and has more significant effects, than just feeling happier – it could make you feel better. Oxytocin has a role in reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, improving heart health and can even aid in mental health issues such as depression. In other words, animals are thought to aid the process of healing. Dogs are among the most common animals used for therapy, and they’re trained through organisations like Pets As Therapy (PAT) to provide emotional support in elderly homes, hospitals, hospices and schools.
While all therapy dogs should undergo training of some kind, other dogs have a natural way of comforting patients, or, through some rather unfortunate coincidence, of showing people that their handicap does not have to limit them. One example is Smiley, a fluffy golden retriever with all the endearing qualities you expect from a retriever: patience, playfulness, affection and intelligence. You name it, Smiley can do it, apart from actually retrieving, as Smiley was born without eyes as the result of cruel breeding malpractice in a puppy farm. But that doesn’t stop Smiley from trying. With a permanent spring in his step and a wag in his tail, this dog shows children that a disability does not have to stop you doing what you love.