There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face
In 1984 an American Biologist and ‘father of sociobiology’ Edward O. Wilson published a work Called Biophilia in which he laid out his reasoning for why animals can make humans feel good. His theory goes that our fondness for and attachment to animals stems from the possibility that early human survival was dependent on signals and warnings they gave out. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that when we see animals in a restful or peaceful state, this elicits feelings of safety and wellbeing in us because they aren’t warning us about anything. If the animals are chilled, we are chilled, in other words.
Wilson also suggested that this connection with animals could be used in therapy to trigger a state where change and healing are possible. This laid the groundwork for animal-assisted therapy. AAT involves animals as a form of treatment and also as a means of increasing the rapport between therapist and patient. Anyone with a dog knows that looking into its eyes and scratching it behind the ear can help at times of stress, even if only to make human problems seem smaller. Pet ownership has been shown to decrease blood pressure in some people.
The Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) based in Surrey, England, offers a range of courses in AAT. They help to fill a gap because in the UK there are no National Occupational Standards or regulated qualifications for AAT or practitioners. AAT is part of certain degree programs for the caring professions, but there are none devoted entirely to it. Training on offer from SCAS includes Practical Training for Therapy Dogs and Companion Animal Interventions in Therapeutic Practice. Skills learned include matching clients and animals, session planning, animal welfare & care and evaluating & measuring outcomes.
SCAS has worked in association with Project Pooch, a program that has successfully paired youths incarcerated at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon with homeless shelter dogs. The youths learn to train and groom the dogs, and may also develop their compassion during their time with the animals. The dogs leave the program ready to be good pets and their trainers re-enter the community with new job and personal skills and an increased compassion and respect for life.
For those who found this article interesting and want to give something back to dogs, there's an excellent course on Pet Nutrition from IOA.