Animal Assisted Therapy


“It is the intuitive power of animals that can help us heal hurts, lessen stress, feel needed, and express our caring side.”

Marty Becker, DVM

Resident veterinarian on Good Morning America

Nationally syndicated pet columnist (Universal Press Syndicate)

In the field of holistic healing Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) occupies a unique position.  Inherent in the human-animal bond dwell incredible healing powers. Proffering their unconditional love and exuberance for life, animals enhance our lives and our bond with them centers our being.  AAT provides interaction with a gentle, friendly animal, which can instantly catalyze rapport building and trust, as well as brighten one’s emotional outlook.


Animal Assisted Therapy began in the 9th century in Gheel, Belgium.  In this town, learning to care for farm animals was part of a program for people with disabilities.  In 1792 the Quakers founded a treatment facility for the mentally ill and used animals as adjuncts to therapy.  Another pioneer of AAT was Florence Nightingale, who used animal-companion therapy for health restoration with the sick, injured and disabled.  Surprisingly, even Sigmund Freud believed that dogs had a “special sense” which allowed them to accurately assess a person’s character, mental state and level of tension.  Freud believed that the presence of a dog had a calming effect on all patients, especially children, and his favorite chow-chow Jo-Fi attended all of his therapy sessions.

The man credited with giving birth to AAT is Boris Levinson, an American child psychiatrist, who discovered quite by accident that he could reach a disturbed child during therapy sessions when Levinson’s dog Jingles was present.  He noticed that when his “”canine co-therapist” Jingles was in sessions, his presence softened children’s defenses and provided a focus for communication, thereby developing trust and rapport which allowed him to initiate therapy.  In 1964, Dr. Levinson coined the term “pet therapy” and began writing extensively on the subject.

Studies have documented that AAT promotes shorter hospital stays and dramatically improves patients’ feelings of well-being.  In addition, research has shown that touching a welcoming animal promotes relaxation and calmness through the release of beta-endorphines and significant decline in blood-pressure and cortisol levels. The increase in oxytocin, our bodies’ “relationship” chemical, decreases the sense of isolation and loneliness, while increasing feelings of connectedness.  Pain reduction can also be a benefit of petting an animal, which releases endorphins, our bodies’ chemicals which suppress pain.

There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.

- Bern Williams, English philosopher

The response of a therapy animal to either verbal or physical commands encourages client communication, and petting, grooming and feeding may develop fine motor skills.  Often clients may want to write, draw or talk about the therapy animal, which develops cognitive skills and further communication.  Walking a therapy dog outside the office gives the client a “break” and can assist the client to process difficult emotional material, which has arisen during the therapy session. 

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

- Winston Churchill

When time allows, I also provide Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) at a ranch in Rancho Santa Margarita.  EAP requires a team comprised of at least one licensed psychotherapist, one certified horse professional and a therapy horse.  Learning how to care, groom, feed, interact with, control and trust a large animal can provide tremendous emotional benefits, improve physical and mental stimulation, develop confidence and boost self-esteem.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

- from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In Loving Memory

Abby, my first canine co-therapist

Dear, sweet Abby, my loving, compassionate therapy dog, went to doggie heaven on Friday, March 28, 2008. I celebrate the 13 years and 13 days of her life, which she shared with us, bringing joy, humor and empathy to everyone she met.  I believe Abby wants us, as we are grieving her loss, to remember the following passage from the book Marley and Me:

"Was it possible for a point humans to the things that really mattered in life? I believed it was. Loyalty. Courage. Devotion. Simplicity. Joy. And the things that did not matter, too. A dog has no use for fancy cars or big homes or designer clothes. Status symbols mean nothing to her. A waterlogged stick will do just fine. A dog judges others not by their color or creed or class but by who they are inside. A dog doesn't care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give her your heart and she will give you hers. It was really quite simple, and yet we humans, so much wiser and more sophisticated, have always had trouble figuring out what really counts and what does not... I realized it was all right there in front of us, if only we opened our eyes. Sometimes it took a dog with bad breath...and pure intentions to help us see."

And the following is a quote sent to me by my daughter Lara shortly after she learned of Abby’s passing:

No energy is ever lost or created.

The First Law of Thermodynamics

Amahle (“Molly”) canine co-therapist