Therapeutic Value of Playing with Animals Who Play

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Animals can help us reconnect with our sense of play, and that leads to healing

I have worked with over 4,000 Service Members with The Act Resilient Method, which uses laughter, Improv Comedy, and working with Therapy Animals to help people reduce stress and feel more engaged with life. It is amazing how much these animals can assist in healing. For this work, I was awarded President Obama's Volunteer Service Award. Below is a short video that introduces this program.

What a sweet loving dog can do in ten minutes is breathtaking. Clients will speak 50% more in a therapy session if an engaged therapy dog is in the room. I have seen very tough soldiers get down on their bellies to love on a tough, pitbull rescue with tons of evidence of a tortured past. Watching this soldier who would barely open his mouth, "baby talk," the dog and pour on the sweetness was healing for everyone in the room.

Oscar, a rescue dog, had so many scars from his enforced brutal past, but his heart was as sweet as a puppy's, and that was a great example of how healing is possible, no matter what the past experiences were.

I am so honored to have been able to work with Oscar, my therapy dog. He could open hearts, mend minds, and help bring people into the present moment. Getting present with a dog loosens the shackles of dwelling on the past and helps connect people with their bodies. In short, animals dissolve numbness. This is why I am so excited about the potential of animal therapy. And I say animal because many individuals from a variety of species can work this healing magic. I have seen great therapy 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 I believe can easily become our partners in personal development and spiritual evolution.

Working with Sophia, my current Therapy Dog. This rescue horse, Miss Betsy, was terrified of dogs, but we were able to heal this. Then the three of us were able to take many sweet walks together.

One reason for the particular focus on dogs as partners in healing is that they seem to really enjoy our company. They love to play and give and receive affection. Another is that they are uniquely suited to “read” human facial expressions, gestures such as pointing helps them to easily understand our intention, and they respond to subtle states of mind and energy. Dogs are highly trainable, and 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, because their emotions are not diluted with thought, they may experience contentment, joy, and love at a very pure level.

This Orangutan in a sanctuary rescued an abandoned dog, and they became inseparable.

To experience the wonder of life, all you have to do is watch kittens, puppies, or young animals 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 a greater spiritual awareness through their own methods of communication, the wordless language of spirit.

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.

Watch This Otter Juggle and Play -- Animals Created Play Therapy!

Some otters keep the same play-rock for their entire lives.

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 feel 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 you. You don’t have to wonder if that love is true because animals don't fake love.

One of the things I love about observing animals is that they show us that play is not just frivolous; it is a valuable healing activity. There is a rescue organization in Vietnam whose mission is to save the Moon Bears. These bears have been raised in captivity, in tiny cages, where they can't move, for their entire lives in order to service the brutal, inhumane bear-bile trade. When they are finally rescued, it takes time for them to heal, physically and mentally. But one of the key ingredients in the healing protocol is allowing them to play. Most of them get the chance to play for the first time in their lives. This joy is contagious and reminds the rescue team why they do what they do every day.

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.

What Bonobos Can Teach Us About the Power of Play

Primatologist Isabel Behncke studies Bonobos the peace-loving, play-loving, sex-loving apes who are our closest genetic relatives with a 98% genetic match. Bonobos are a matriarchal society and use play and sensuality to handle conflict. These genetic cousins of ours laugh all the time and play for their entire lives, which helps them to foster tolerance. Play also increases resilience and well-being, and this the glue that keeps the society successful. Sex play is a part of everyday life, and it maintains trust between them. Because they are so sexual, this is one reason why you don't see them in zoos!

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."

If you ever need a little cheering up, all you have to do is watch animals playing, enjoying their freedom, and living life fully. Here is one video of a Rocky Mountain horse expressing his joy.

The more we understand and learn to communicate with animals, the more we evolve as humans. This is why I will explore the very significant value that all animals, and dogs in particular, as ambassadors of love, bring to humanity.

Perhaps one of the most important roles that animal companions have played in our lives is 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.

Below is a video by Stuart Brown, M.D. on the importance of play. He explains why play is not just frivolous, but is an essential part of animal and human life.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection


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