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Dogs aid in treatment of addiction

Dogs provide non-judgemental, unconditional support
Dogs provide non-judgemental, unconditional support
Pam D'Addio / Tri County Humane Society

Love is considered a universal healer so it's a short leap to imagine all the many ways a dog can heal a soul. One frontier where dogs are making their loving mark is with those recovering from addiction.

We've long known the practical 'jobs' therapy dogs can perform, such as serving as a blind person's eyes, helping the wheelchair-bound with tasks, or even sniffing out oncoming seizures in the humans they live with but now we're leaning the depth of their gifts even as they are just being dogs.

Studies old and new are shining a light on the amazing effects the friendly companionship of a dog can have on those recovering from addiction. Can dogs replace some of the drugs given to alter the chemicals in the brain in a positive way? A new study at Washington State University suggests once again that indeed they can, and without any side effects!

Teens in therapy for drug and alcohol addiction were put into two groups. The first spent their free time playing video games or sports while the second group interacted with dogs by caring for and playing with them. The teens' moods and emotions were then measured. The 'dog group' showed heightened joy and improved calm and attentiveness. Those patients who also had depression, ADHD, or PTSD showed even more improvement after the sessions with dogs.

It was further observed that the dog group showed greater bonding with their human therapists after working with the dogs and they had more productive and positive interaction with staff at the treatment facility. Patients learned to become quieter, calmer and more deliberate while with the dogs to keep from startling them. Their movements became more calculated rather than spontaneous and they were more aware of themselves and how they were acting.

It is surmised that social interaction with dogs releases opioid receptors in the brain, the chemicals that relieve pain and promote pleasurable feelings. The raised levels of serotonin and dopamine, the nerve transmitters known to have pleasurable and calming properties, work on the body in much the same way as heroin or cocaine. "This is wonderful research and highlights how companion animals can promote therapy," said Jaak Ranksepp, Chair of Animal Well-Being Sciences at WSU.

The Delta Society has long promoted the animal-human bond and is a leading resource for its benefits with illness and addiction. More and more addiction treatment facilities are allowing dogs inside with their guests to facilitate trust and calm among them. Addicts who are sometimes more guarded know the dogs have no hidden agenda, don't judge, and are giving their love unconditionally. This can override their defenses and offer comfort as well as lowering their blood pressure and anxiety and building empathy and a sense of belonging as well as responsibility for another.

As research continues, more and more facilities are working to get the proper permits and licensing to integrate dogs into their therapy. Some provide dogs, either trained therapy dogs or even non-therapy dogs, while others allow the patients' own pets to move into the facility with them.

What a gift dogs, and all pets, are to humans. Research is showing more and more ways they make our lives better. Read about amazing animal bonds and how they can heal by reading the accompanying suggested articles by this author, and remember to ADOPT, TAG and MICROCHIP, SPAY and NEUTER, and LOVE YOUR DOGS FOR LIFE!

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