A new study shows that playing with dogs can lift the mood of teenagers while they receive residential drug and alcohol treatment.
Lindsay Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, discovered using shelter dogs to interact with adolescents can significantly improve the mood of the teens and provide a cost-effective alternative to conventional care.
“We found one of the most robust effects of interacting with the dogs was increased joviality,” she said.
“Some of the words the boys used to describe their moods after working with the dogs were ‘excited,’ ‘energetic’ ‘and happy.'”
The relationship between dogs and humans is prehistoric, but Ellsworth’s study is the first of its kind to demonstrate how such interactions improve mood among teenagers living in residential treatment centers.
Once a week, during the daily recreation time at the center, Ellsworth breaks about eight participants into two groups.
One group plays pool, video games or basketball provided in the treatment center. The other group interacts with the shelter dogs for about an hour.
Before the activity, participants identify 60 mood descriptors on a scale of one to five on what is known as the PANAS-X, a self-reporting method organizational psychologists use to scale and study emotion. After the activity, the participants fill out the same scale.
Those who spent time with the dogs not only showed an increase in joviality, but also positive affect (in psychology, the experience of feeling good), attentiveness and serenity.
“I was surprised, during the trial period, how calm the boys were around the dogs and at how outbursts and hyperactivity diminished,” she said. “It was something you could observe like night and day.”
When Ellsworth asked the boys what they like most about working with the dogs, some of their written responses included, “giving dogs treats and showing a lot of love to the dogs” and “I like to have time with the dogs because (it) lets me get my mind off things” and “I loved playing with Junior.”
Experts say the use of animals to augment traditional therapy could be established as part of a treatment center’s structured activities.
“It’s an opportunity for kids in a real chaotic life, making unhealthy choices, to focus in on a specific task with an animal,” said Robert Faltermeyer, executive director of the youth center. “It empowers them to make positive changes even on the simplest scale of correcting the animal’s behavior.
“I think those exposures build some internal capacity for them to say, ‘Hey, I think I’m capable of changing my life,'” he said.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse is actively looking for science-based behavioral interventions to help those struggling with drug abuse respond more fully to the stimulus of day-to-day activities, Ellsworth said.
She hypothesizes that the neurotransmitter dopamine, associated with positive feelings of reward, is released in the boys’ brains as they anticipate the dog interaction. Social companionship with the dogs may also stimulate opioid release.
Using natural stimuli like dogs, she said, could help restore the normal function of these critical chemical messengers after the brain’s chemistry has been altered through drug use. Animal behaviorist Ruth Newberry, Ph.D., Ellsworth’s doctoral advisor at WSU, agrees on the potential for treatment.
“It could be a really novel, cost-effective and beneficial complement to traditional treatments. This could be a win-win innovation for everyone involved,” Newberry said, “including the dogs.”
Ellsworth hasn’t been able to scientifically track the impact on the dogs, since so many are adopted over the course of the trials. However, she said research has shown dogs in a limited social environment, like a shelter, are more responsive to humans.
“Any sort of activity that provides an opportunity for shelter dogs to socialize with humans and other dogs outside of the kennel environment is great, and that is the value that the shelter sees in these dog-interaction activities, too.” Ellsworth said.
Future research will study if dogs can influence teenagers’ engagement in group therapy and cooperation in structured activities. Ellsworth hypothesizes that the more compliant and engaged teenagers are with structured programs, the more likely they are to reap the benefits of treatment.
Source: Washington State University