When woo works


I recently became aware of Tellington T Touch therapy which is an animal healing technique, partly influenced by the Feldenkrais Method. It is principally used on ailing horses, cats and dogs, although it can be applied to many species. I’ve even heard reports of it being used on snakes and tarantulas – apparently they “touched” the snake with sticks. According to the official spiel, instructors and practitioners can be found in 27 countries. The inventor was Linda Tellington-Jones; her website explains how it works:

The intent of the TTouch is to activate the function of the cells and awaken cellular intelligence – a little like “turning on the electric lights of the body.”

Predictably, no explanation of “cellular intelligence” is given, but I’m guessing it has nothing to do with the cellular neural network parallel computing paradigm. Further reading reveals that Ms Tellington Jones received an honorary doctorate degree from the dubiously accredited and pompously-named Wisdom University.

None of which means that Tellington T Touch therapy won’t work; it just sets off the woo-alarm.

So what is Tellington T Touch therapy?

Using a combination of specific touches, lifts, and movement exercises, TTouch helps to release tension and increase body awareness.

Which I sounds a lot like massage and exercise and I think it’s quite reasonable that massage and exercise should be good for animals. The physical and mental benefits of exercise for humans are well-known. Ordinary, non-magical massage – with no ineffable cellular intelligence – shows signs of being beneficial to elderly people suffering loneliness or depression amongst others. It makes sense that social creatures, be they humans or dogs, would benefit from physical contact and connection to those around them.

So I can really see Tellington T Touch working. I expect that a well-intentioned practitioner really could improve a pet’s behaviour and to some extent its general health. But I seriously doubt it could perform significantly better than a combination of loving attention and regular “walkies”.

Which rather clouds the issue. Practitioners vary in how much they market the pseudo-scientific side of their animal therapy; many of the UK ones steer clear of the vague explanations and simply use Tellington T Touch as an extra skill on their CV – no need to scare off the skeptics when the rest of what they do is fairly “normal”.

However, there are plenty who do claim that some holistic, cellular level awakening of energies or similar is behind the effects. Is such an animal therapist a con artist or not? If they can achieve the results they claim, then what does the reasoning behind it matter? After all, there are a number of medicines in common usage whose exact mechanisms are poorly-understood, but they are still rigorously tested before being administered to the general public.

Which is exactly the point – all alternative therapies should be tested, like any other medical treatment. That means randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials.

It’s also worth noting that it doesn’t matter what the claimed reasoning behind the treatment might be. Whether it’s “cellular intelligence” or “a certain energy” or just “a mystery” – whether it works or not can still be tested. As long as you can compare it against a “fake” version without the patients or those measuring the results knowing, you have a double-blind trial. I think it’s safe to say that the animals won’t be able to read the Tellington T Touch practitioner’s certificates on the wall, so will be unaware of which is a real treatment and which is the control. As for the measurers, there’s no need for them to see the therapy or control being carried out and they could assess the results over the next few days or weeks. As long as it’s done on a statistically signficant number of animals the study can be fair and informative.

I think testing is important and I see no reason that alternative therapies should be able to shirk this responsibility. Few people would be willing to take a pharmaceutical company’s products if for example, they said “Yes it works, although it can’t be tested, but they’ve been using it in the far East for generations and my grandmother swears by it” (that’s probably more akin to Reiki than T Touch, but the implications are similar). I’d like all “medical” treatments to be held to the same high standards. If “Fairy dust” or “cellular intelligence” is an unreasonable explanation for GlaxoSmithKline, then it’s unreasonable for everyone.

Granted, a bit of ineffective massage is unlikely to make your eyes drop out or to cause sterility (unless it’s very clumsy). However, even if you were to give the therapy for free, I still don’t think it’s entirely harmless. An ailing person (or animal) only has a certain amount of time and energy to spend trying out alternatives. Confusing the issue with ill-defined treatments of dubious efficacy is at best an irresponsible waste of people’s time and at worst cruel and deceitful.

As regards Tellington T Touch, I think it sits on a borderline. Most of the claims it makes sound reasonable for simple massage and exercise (except perhaps the treatment of snakes and spiders), so why add all the magical nonsense? Perhaps it means they can charge more or take on cases where traditional therapy has failed. In any case, I think they should undergo independent clinical trials – preferably by an institution which doesn’t have “Truth” or “Wisdom” in the title. If their techniques show significantly better results than plain massage and exercise, then they’ve earned the right to be respected medical practitioners. If not, then they should call a spade a spade and admit it’s just massge and exercise.

7 thoughts on “When woo works

  1. Yes it works, although it can’t be tested, but they’ve been using it in the far East for generations and my grandmother swears by it

    Speaking as an ex-Reiki charlatan practitioner, I can assure you that this is often all the endorsement needed for a mark patient to accept the treatment as genuine.

    I wonder if they’ll have any problem with the anti-vivisection movement? After all, any clinical trials would have to involve animal testing…

  2. I am a TTouch Practitioner and have been using this method alongside other positive training methods with great success for a a number of years. It is not energy work like Reiki or medical manipulation/intervention as claimed by techniques like Bowen. TTouch is much more akin to the Feldenkrais or Alexander techniques in that it teaches body awareness by non-habitual movement … either of the skin in the light TTouches or the body in ground work exercises. The physical TTouches are much too light to be massage and have a different purpose. The other part of this work that is rarely mentioned is the respect that is shown to the animal or person involved and as far as I am concerned this ethos of respect is a hugely important part ot TTouch and the work that I do with animals and their owners.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Marie. I’m sure the majority of T-Touch practitioners are very respectful and kind to the animals they treat and they probably wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t like animals.

    Whether the technique involves massage, stroking or “light touches”, I’m most interested in whether it can be clinically proven to work, then if so, investigating why it works. Most social animals benefit from exercise, training and attention, so what makes T-Touch special. Linda Tellington’s site gave a very woolly explanation, which made me suspicious. I’d be interested to know if there has ever been an independent clinical study of T-Touch. Do you know of such a study?

  4. Perhaps I was not as clear as I should have been. While it is true that TTouch Practitioners are kind and respectuful in their interactions and training of animals, sadly the same cannot be said of all animal trainers.

    I respect your need to know how and why TTouch works. There is a page about research and studies done into TTouch on the website http://www.ttouch.com/researchStudies.shtml … is that the sort of thing you are looking for?

  5. Marie,
    Thanks for the link, but I’m really after something independent, comparing the efficacy of TTouch with a control or against other techniques. This looks like it was funded by TTouch organisations for the purpose or promoting TTouch. Regarding the Robin Bernhard and Sandy Rakowitz brain injury work:

    Just last year, they did a study which showed exactly what they and others have been concluding all along – that this specialized work can improve brain function.

    Sounds a lot like confirmation bias to me. A couple of people who’ve believed something for 20 years produce a study confirming that they’re correct. I don’t find that especially surprising or enlightening.

    That’s not to say that TTouch definitely couldn’t do the things they claim, but this study offers nothing to show that it’s any better than any informal technique might be. It seems instead to be a series of anecdotes which could have been cherry-picked for this article.

  6. I see what you mean. I’m afraid that I know very little about scientific research and how it is funded. How does one go about it? Where does the money come from? I guess the best place to contact for up to date information about any research being carried out independant or otherwise would be the TTouch Office if SF … contact details are on the main website.

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