How pet grooming can lessen the effects of trauma on humans

By Betty Jean Curran

When Annie started the program, she was terrified. After spending years living in a trailer with her abusive boyfriend and three children, miles away from any neighbors, she couldn’t imagine being in school. The prospect of entering a room full of people and engaging in conversation caused her anxiety to skyrocket. She didn’t like to be the center of attention; she didn’t want to be caught off guard. Unable to trust her own instincts, she was always on high alert, feeling agitated, defensive, and alone.

A lifetime of chronic stress and trauma had impacted Annie’s nervous system so much that everyday social interactions, not to mention the ability to form healthy, supportive relationships, were severely limited and laced with high anxiety and pain. When Annie interviewed for a spot in The Grooming Project’s program—an opportunity to slowly get back on her feet—she knew that her complex PTSD would be a major barrier. It always was.

She also knew, though, that she was willing to do what it took to work with dogs, her lifelong dream. “Dogs are my salvation,” she had said. “People always let me down. I can’t trust them, but my dogs are always there. Unconditionally.” Annie repeated this mantra when she walked in the door on her first day of class and felt all eyes on her.

When the group leader asked her to introduce herself, she became sick to her stomach. How was she going to get through this? She hoped that it wouldn’t end up like all the other programs she had started and never finished: the CNA training, the GED classes. Barely speaking the rest of the day, Annie focused solely on the dogs she was bathing. She tried hard to make them feel comfortable because if anyone could relate to feeling scared and out of control in a strange environment, it was her. Stroking their fur as she rinsed off the shampoo, she assured them that they would get through this stressful time together.

Over the next few weeks, Annie found herself engaging in small talk with the other students as they brushed out the dogs. There was something enjoyable about getting lost in the rhythmic movement of brushing out tangles, as it took her mind off the stress of her home life and eased her gently into the present moment.

This newfound calm—a sense of safety—allowed her to feel more connected to her peers. For the first time in years, Annie felt like she was part of something. The empowerment she felt began to trickle into her home life. She became more confident in her parenting skills and in her ability to turn her life around.

This inner trajectory—from anxiety and social isolation to a growing sense of connection and self-efficacy—is common for students at The Grooming Project and closely parallels the path from generational poverty to financial independence and housing security. And, while there are several factors that contribute to these psychosocial changes—like access to a supportive learning community that fosters a growth mindset, and intensive case management to help students navigate crises and find housing, childcare, and transportation—the human-animal bond plays an important, yet often overlooked, role in the healing process for most students.

Elevating the therapeutic benefits of connectedness

As a certified pet grooming school and job training program for parents who struggle with trauma and other psychosocial challenges associated with chronic stress and poverty, The Grooming Project is poised to tap into—and elevate—the powerful therapeutic benefits associated with human-animal interactions. A growing body of research indicates that human-animal interactions are tied to increased levels of physiological, psychological, and social wellbeing.(1) For instance, people with pets are shown to have higher levels of cardiovascular health, report less feelings of social isolation and depression, and feel more integrated in, and supported by, their community.(2) Indeed, the unique bonds that form between humans and animals are often therapeutic, and social service organizations and other institutions all over the world have found ways to integrate animal assisted interventions in both primary and ancillary programs that promote human health and wellbeing.

The human animal bond is defined as “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and wellbeing of both.”(3) Emphasis is placed on the reciprocal nature of these relationships, as humans and domesticated animals, particularly dogs, have coevolved over the past 33,000 years, with each species developing and adapting in close relation to the other.

For instance, researchers have found that dogs developed facial features structured for complex expression, specifically muscles in their eyebrows, that allow for those “puppy dog eyes” that inevitably win over human hearts.(4) These data are some of the first evolutionary evidence that dogs acquired the unique ability to communicate specifically with humans.(5) In fact, the special gaze that takes place between a human and a friendly dog causes a jolt of oxytocin for both species, which enhances deep feelings of connectedness and care.(6) Studies show that our dogs have rich emotional lives and share the same affinity for us as we do for them.

The strength of this bond is apparent in the rapidly growing $103.6 billion pet industry, not to mention the 95% of pet guardians who, in the APPMA National Pet Owners Survey, referred to their pets as “friends,” while 87% referred to their pets as “family members.”(7) The dynamic and mutually beneficial relationships between humans and pets are thus deeply entwined in family systems, communities, and the ecology of everyday life. Working within this lucrative space, The Grooming Project is able to harness existing market forces to create a unique pathway out of poverty through its job training program for students who also reap the therapeutic benefits of working with dogs daily.

The therapeutic outcomes associated with human-animal interactions are well documented. For instance, decreased cortisol levels, reduced stress and anxiety, increases in positive mood, reduced levels of depression, as well as promotion of empathy and prosocial behaviors are all linked to human-animal interactions.(8) Furthermore, studies indicate that people experience more positive interactions with strangers when dogs are present due to the “social catalyst effect,” which leads to increased levels of community integration.(9) These psychosocial impacts are undoubtedly experienced by students at The Grooming Project.

For Annie and other students like her, engaging with a new group of people while trying to learn a new skill and address a series of personal and psychosocial barriers is an enormously complex and difficult task, one that can trigger intense anxiety. And, while all people have nervous systems that are wired to scan for threat in a natural process called “neuroception,” those who have histories of trauma and toxic stress are more likely to detect threat through social cues when there is, in fact, none present.(10)

In this way, students like Annie have subconscious barriers to social connection—the resilience-fostering social support networks that they crave. Afterall, humans are wired for connection. Fortunately, Annie—like other students—found that merely being in the presence of a safe dog allowed her to feel calmer. The act of rhythmically brushing out the dog’s tangles reduced stress hormones and released oxytocin, allowing for the
“neuroception of safety” that she struggled to feel amongst her human peers.11 Because her nervous system sensed safety, she was then able to regulate her emotions and develop deeper connections with her classmates without the usual defensive and isolating behaviors. Through these interactions, Annie gained a sense of mastery and purpose, which increased her self-efficacy and confidence in all areas of her life.

Annie’s experience is not uncommon. In fact, most graduates of The Grooming Project describe the human-animal bond as an important factor in their personal and professional growth. And, while The Grooming Project’s holistic program integrates intensive social services and soft skills classes to address the psychosocial impacts of chronic poverty and stress, the impact of the human-animal bond should not be overlooked. The dynamic relationships between humans and animals are complex and deeply woven into our families and communities. The Grooming Project is thus poised to tap into and elevate the healing nature of these interspecies relationships.

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1 Beetz, A. M. (2017). Theories and possible processes of action in animal assisted interventions. Applied Developmental Science, 21(2), 139-149. Wood, L. J., Giles-Corti, B., Bulsara, M. K. & Bosch, D. A. (2007). More than a furry companion: The ripple effect of companion animals on neighborhood interactions and sense of community. Society and Animals, 15, 43-56. Walsh, F. (2009). Human-animal bonds I: The relational significance of animals. Family Process, 48(4), 462-480. 2 Beetz, 2017; Wood, 2007 3 4 5 6 7 Walsh, 2009 8 Beetz, 2017 9 Beetz, 2017 10 11 Beetz, 2017