In search of ponies: Dogs may provide help for recovering addicts

Their ability to calm the anxious, sooth the traumatized and break through barriers is well established — leading dogs to be welcomed into classrooms, hospitals, nursing homes and a slew of therapeutic environments.
Something about interacting with them miraculously brings out smiles on the faces of people who have plenty of reasons to do anything but.
Euphoric, calming, invigorating, loss of inhibitions — all possible reactions to a few minutes with a pooch and all possible reasons why dogs may find their place as a drug of choice to substance abusers.
And, much to the chagrin of pharmaceutical companies, they just might be the best upper out there.
Seeking to see what if any impact a dog might have on youth recovering from drug and alcohol dependencies, a Washington State University doctoral candidate put the two together.
What Lindsay Ellsworth discovered was that the dogs did indeed make a difference, possibly even more of a difference than she had theorized they might.
A group of eight boys at a youth center were divided into two groups once a week. One group was allowed free recreation including basketball and video games, while the other group of boys was placed with dogs from a local shelter; allowed to brush, feed and play with them.
Given a psychological screening that gauges emotion before and after their recreation time, those who interacted with the dogs showed marked improvement in their moods, attentiveness, happiness and peacefulness while also experiencing a reduction in overall sadness, according to a report issued by WSU.
With many of the youth being treated for compound diagnosis such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, ADHD and other issues in addition to drug and alcohol abuse, the impact of the dogs on their emotional state was near astounding and Ellsworth noted the boy’s behaviors were drastically changed while the dogs were around — hyperactivity, distractibility and outbursts among negative behaviors that all but disappeared in the presence of the dogs.
While overwhelmingly positive, Ellsworth has said she believes there may be more than just fun driving the outcome of her test.
With no injection, smoke or pill popping, spending time with dogs may just cause a release of dopamine and opioids in the brain which equates to happiness and general good feelings.
And if Ellsworth is correct, that release of chemicals could even go one step further to help repair the damage caused by substance use and restore the natural chemistry of the brain.
It is highly unlikely that dogs possess fairy dust that magically heals people who pet them, nor is it likely that they, like Buddha, bestow blessings in exchange for belly rubs.
But what they do offer is open communication lacking in judgment or bias.
Being near or at rock-bottom and issue-laden often sends out a stay-away beacon to other humans, adding dejected, rejected and disassociated to the list of challenges for those struggling with substance abuse and mental or emotional illnesses.
However in the eyes of an eager pooch who seeks only approval and affection, the same youth are transformed into someone important, competent, needed and downright wanted – simply put, the dogs render them human again.
If further research proves there is indeed a chemical release caused by positive interactions between human and dog which specifically aids substance abusers, the outcome could be magnificent, for humans and dogs, who could find themselves dubbed the newest high to sweep the nation.
If, on the other hand, no proof of chemical release is found, that’s OK too, because if all dogs ever do is give a sense of importance and humanity back to those who have lost it, they will have accomplished more than most.

 Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at: or on the web at:

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