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The Human-Animal Connection

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Koko the Gorilla learned sign language from Penny

Almost every kind of animal has the potential to become a companion or therapeutic partner. Stories abound about therapeutic partnerships with all animals, such as cats, birds, elephants, horses, llamas, pigs, dolphins, mice and monkeys, and too many others to mention.

But dogs are very suitable companions for the human lifestyle, even in urban settings. They are easily portable for animal-therapy visits. But beyond that practical matter, they attend very well to human emotions, communication cues, and are masters of higher emotions such as love. This is just one reason why they can be our partners in personal development and spiritual evolution.

One reason for the primary focus on dogs as partners in healing is that they seem to really enjoy our company. Another is that they are uniquely suited to “read” human facial expressions, gestures such as pointing, intention, and energy. Dogs are highly trainable, and literally any breed, large or small, can become the perfect companion or therapy dog. Dogs have been our partners since the beginning of time. But more than survival, dogs have helped us thrive. They have taught us compassion and companionship. Their particular brand of loyalty and devotion is nearly saintly. As 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney said, "The average dog is a nicer person than the average person is."

While animals share many of our primary emotions, such as the six universal ones Charles Darwin identified: anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, and surprise – it is possible that animals experience emotions we have yet to name or fully understand. In some cases, since their emotions are not diluted with thought, they may experience contentment, joy, and love at a very pure level.

Primate researcher Jane Goodall reminds us that we need to recognize that humans are animals too. While she has shown that chimpanzees are capable of violence to each other, it is not as often as seen in our species. Our opinion of ourselves as a superior species doesn’t always stand up to the evidence of the destruction we cause to other species, as well as our own. It is time that we had a greater sense of unity between species if we are to live in harmony and even survive ourselves. With greater understanding of the complex inner life of non-human animals, perhaps we can act more responsibly and compassionately toward all animals.

In the words of Goodall:

"There is increasingly compelling evidence that we are not alone in the universe, not the only creatures with minds capable of solving problems, capable of love and hate, joy and sorrow, fear and despair. Certainly, we are not the only animals who experience pain and suffering. In other words, there is no sharp line between the human and the rest of the animal kingdom. It is a blurred line and becoming more so all the time. "

The more we understand and learn to communicate with animals, the more we evolve as humans. This is why I am open to exploring the very significant value that all animals, as ambassadors of love, bring to humanity.

Animals can enrich our lives in so many ways, just one of which is to help us be more present and open. There is a great deal we can learn about our own emotions by engaging with animals. They seem to feel more intensely and purely than we do, as their emotions are not encumbered by as many layers of convoluted cognitive thought. They don’t have so many complex and mixed emotions. They love you or they don’t. They will safe with you or they don’t. Of course, they can have mixed emotions based on past experiences, but in general, if they love you, they love, and you don’t have to wonder if that is true.

Just spending twenty minutes petting an animal helps us release oxytocin, the “love hormone.” Social worker and dog trainer Rick Yount reports in the US Army Medical Department Journal that “Oxytocin levels are naturally increased by loving gaze, gentle touch, warmth, and close social relationships.” Other studies have shown that even three minutes of engaged and connected petting can release oxytocin. Putting our attention on animals and away from our troubles can help us to move easily and gracefully into pure joy.

To experience the wonder of life, all you have to do is watch kittens or puppies play. Which explains why these are some of the most popular videos on social media. Without using words, and perhaps because they don't use words, animals can teach us to experience something we yearn for -- a sense of play and delightful abandon. Animals can help us connect to greater spiritual awareness through their own methods of communication, the wordless language of spirit.

Interacting deeply and consciously with animals is one way to explore and expand our spirituality because as we connect with them and feel the unifying energy between us, we are more likely to experience the Grace of all life. By expanding the sense of appreciation for all life, we move beyond our awareness of ourselves as simply individuals, and rather see what connects us, which is the life force, or spiritual energy, permeating all living things.

Dr. Mary Lou Randour, author of Animal Grace: Entering a Spiritual Relationship with Our Fellow Creatures, says on her website: "We sense that through our relationship to animals, we can recover that which is true within us and, through the discovery of that truth, find our spiritual direction.” She suggests that through loving animals perhaps we can learn to treat other humans with more compassion. “Animals teach us about love: how to love, how to enjoy being loved, how loving is in itself an activity that generates more love, radiating out and encompassing an ever-larger circle of others."

The History of the Human-Animal Bond

As James Serpell states: “The use of pets as therapeutic agents dates to 1699. He quotes the philosopher John Locke, who advocated ‘giving children dogs, squirrels, birds, or any such thing as to look after as a means of encouraging them to develop tender feelings, and a sense of responsibility for others.’”

Farm animals were recorded as being used in therapeutic contexts, according to researchers Baun and McCabe, who report that animals were present at a Quaker retreat in England for the mental health benefit of the residents. “…And in 1867 farm animals were used again at a Bethel Community in Germany.”

M.M. Baun continues to discuss the first recorded use of therapy animals in the US. “In the United States animals were first used therapeutically in the 1940’s at an Air Force Convalescent home in New York City. The use of animals at these sites was to promote the patients’ well-being by allowing them to observe, take care of, and touch the animals.” Jan Shubert further explains that this hospital was “more of a rest home than a medical facility for patients suffering from ‘operational fatigue,’ which is probably what is called PTSD today. The facility provided both an academic program and the physical activity of working at the facility's farm (with the animals).”

Sigmund Freud was known to have been accompanied by his chow dog, Jofi, during his analysis sessions with patients toward the end of his life, which was done as a comfort to him. Shubert reports that while he was not initially aware of this as a benefit to patients, “After awhile, however, he apparently noticed that the presence of the dog seemed to provide his patients with feelings of security and acceptance, and facilitated their analyses.”

Animals as partners in healing may pave the way in our evolution when it comes to understanding and resolving trauma, detecting cancer, and the numerous other benefits dogs bring to our contemporary lives, which can cause us to be very alienated from our own natural rhythms. While the human-animal bond may be as old as we are, the research on the subject has only recently been blossoming. The journal Animal Frontiers discusses the origin of the term “Human-Animal Bond:

"In the late 1970’s the term “human–animal bond” was coined by Leo Bustad and Michael McCulloch. Drs. Bustad and McCulloch were just developing the Delta Society, a society dedicated to understanding the relationship between animals, people, and the environment; hence, the delta. The term “the human–animal bond” was unashamedly borrowed from the respected association found between parents and their offspring, the so-called “parent–infant bond.” The human–animal bond is now being recognized as a scientific discipline; it is a theoretic construct for the behavioral, psychological, physiological, ecological, social, and ethical consequences of the relationship between people and animals...."

Dr. Elizabeth Reichert sees an important role for animals in helping children who have been sexually abused. Often they will talk to animals, express emotions, and share details that they wouldn’t even begin to discuss with adults. Animals have also been shown to help those children suffering from insecure attachment due to either abuse or neglect.

Nancy Parish-Plass has written about an innovative program in Israel that uses animals for these children in an effort to stop the cycle of inter-generational abuse, where people who were abused or neglected as children become the same type of parent as the ones they experienced. In discussing this program, which uses animals to assist in healing, Parish-Plass states:

"(It allows) abused and neglected children to form stable relationships with animals (i.e., attachments) with the assistance of a therapist, thereby helping them to develop healthier ways of relating to others and reduce the likelihood of them becoming abusive and neglectful parents themselves."

Reichert notes the case of Dr. Boris Levinson, who some consider the father of modern animal-assisted therapy. While he was a psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, he was attempting to treat a difficult, uncommunicative child. By happy accident, the patient and his mother arrived early for their appointment, and Levinson left his dog, Jingles, alone with the child for only a few minutes. When he returned, the child, who hadn’t spoken to him, was talking with the dog.

Dr. Levinson was so inspired by the positive impact of animals in a therapeutic context that he went on to write seminal books on the subject, such as Pet Oriented Psychotherapy, and Pets and Human Development.

At first Levinson was treated with ridicule when he presented his findings to professionals at conferences, but he later discovered that about a third of those professionals he polled were using animals to assist in therapy sessions. This gave him the conviction to continue, as Shubert explains: “A principal reason for Levinson's persistence regarding the importance of the human-animal bond was his belief that humans had become totally alienated from each other and from nature."

Love connects us at the deepest levels

Perhaps one of the most important roles that animal companions have played in our lives is showing us how to be a better human, through the daily practice of love. I believe that loving an animal inspires us to feel a very pure kind of love. Thus animals bring out the best in us. They help us to become better at being human.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director - The Human-Animal Connection


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