The Healing Benefits of Animals

As an animal lover, I’d always believed in their healing powers, but until I got Henry, my service dog, I never knew the extent to which they could be specially trained to improve the quality of life for people with all kinds of ailments.

When I first got Henry, and started taking him into public places, people asked me how a Dachshund/Chihuahua could be a service dog. They were also confused because it wasn’t apparent why I needed him. “What’s wrong with you?” people would ask. “What can such a little dog do to help you?” They wanted to know. I felt self-conscious, and didn’t want to tell these complete strangers about my colitis or my depression. I wanted to pull Henry’s service dog vest off and run away. Even though we’d spent nine months training together, I seriously considered giving up, but Henry wasn’t ready to quit. So, I had to find a way to deal with the reactions.

I decided to arm myself with all the knowledge I could find about how animals help people.


The concept of healing with the help of animals has been around for centuries.
Animal Assisted Therapy – AAT, for the mentally ill started in the late 18th century at the York Retreat in England, a facility where the patients could wander the grounds in the company of small domestic animals. According to James Serpell; Professor of Humane Ethics & Animal Welfare at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine; this encouraged the patients to socialize with each other and staff. Half a century later the Bethlehem Hospital, which we know as Bedlam, added animals to their wards to boost the morale of patients. Bedlam is one of the oldest mental institutions in the world, founded by Christians in 1247 originally to shelter and care for homeless people, it gradually focused more on those considered ‘mad.’

Since I have been concerned about my own sanity for decades, I found the history of animals being used to help patients in Bedlam reassuring.
I was also excited to learn that Sigmund Freud had a Chow Chow name Jofi, who was present for many of his sessions, because he noticed that his presence helped patients, especially adolescents, relax and confide more easily.

Serpell, James “Animal Companions and Human Well-Being: An Historical Exploration of the Value of Human-Animal Relationships,” Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice: pp.3–17.


We are most familiar with direct assistance given by “seeing eye dogs” to visually impaired people, but there are many other programs that incorporate the use of a variety of animals to help treat all kinds of conditions. For example, AAT has been used in treatment plans to help combat loneliness, stress, depression and other emotional problems. Treatment plans can be as simple as prescribing a pet at home to provide companionship. In other situations, fish, birds or rabbits have been used into clinical situations, to help patients to let down their guard and more fully participate in their therapy. Other animals used in treatment include dolphins, cats, cows, elephants and horses.

Here are some programs that use Equine Assisted Therapy:
The Saddle Light Center in Selma, Texas, provide physical therapists and trained riding instructors for EAT to all ages of disabled persons.
The Triple H Equitherapy Center in Bandera County, Texas, provides EAT to help people who have mental, emotional and physical disabilities to develop basic life skills.

The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) trains animal handlers and provides accreditation for those who practice this amazing therapy, and carefully select appropriate horses that have been trained specifically for this purpose.

Under the psycho-therapeutic guidance of a mental health professional and trained horse handlers, patients learn to care for a horse through grooming, feeding and leading. Therapeutic riding teaches disabled persons how to ride a horse, which can increase strength, coordination, control, balance and orientation.

Patients with autism or Asperger’s syndrome are said to be calmer and to have an increased ability to focus as a result of the rhythmic motion of horse riding. Grooming and riding can improve gross motor function and reduce anxiety.

People whose disabilities diminish their ability to care for their appearance and hygiene can improve in those areas by learning to regularly groom a horse. And those with weak communication skills can gain confidence through learning to give a horse commands.