Therapy Dogs: Five Ways Dogs Can Make Patients Healthier
Any dog owner can attest to the health benefits of having a canine companion. Health researchers can attest to them as well. Pets can decrease cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as increase physical activity and social connections for their owners. Although we know plenty about how dogs can make us healthier at home, researchers have only recently begun investigating the effectiveness of using specially-trained dogs in therapy and counseling sessions.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a burgeoning field within social science research, and because dogs have such a unique ability to connect with humans, therapy dogs are often at the center of these studies. Here are five interesting ways that therapy dogs have been found to be effective in making patients happier and healthier.
Helping post-surgery patients recover more quickly
In a recent study published in PLOS One, researchers found that just two hours after awakening from anesthesia, pediatric patients who had underwent surgery and interacted with a therapy dog became alert and attentive more quickly than those who did not spend any time with a therapy dog. They also had reduced levels of anxiety and stress and reported lower levels of pain. Surgery can be one of the most stressful events a child may experience, and this research suggests that AAT can help facilitate a child’s ability to cope with hospitalization and the effects of anesthesia.
Children are not the only post-op patients that benefit from interacting with therapy dogs. In another study published in Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, researchers tested whether patients recovering from total joint replacement would perceive less pain if animal-assisted therapy interventions were coupled with physical therapy sessions. Those exposed to therapy dogs not only reported less pain after physical therapy sessions compared to the control group, but they also reported higher rates of satisfaction with the hospital and staff, and even communicated with healthcare providers more.
Reducing anxiety and depression among patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are diseases that can have a devastating impact on patients and their loved ones. While there is still much to learn about these heart-wrenching conditions, therapy dogs have been shown to have some benefits for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. In a study published in International Psychogeriatrics, researchers found that utilizing animal-assisted activities for patients with Alzheimer’s reduced anxiety and sadness, while also increasing positive emotions and motor activity. While there was no difference in cognitive function, the presence of a therapy dog made the participants happier.
In another study, published The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, patients suffering from dementia were split into a control group and an animal-assisted therapy group. In the control group, symptoms of agitation and depression increased significantly over a 10-week period. In comparison, patients in the AAT group had very little increase in agitation and depression throughout that same time frame. While therapy dogs certainly cannot cure or alleviate all symptoms of dementia, these studies show promise in AAT’s effectiveness to help these patients feel more comfortable.
Increasing a sense of agency among patients with psychiatric disorders
So far, we have seen AAT’s effectiveness in reducing anxiety among patients recovering from surgery and patients with dementia. Research from Richmond’s own backyard, conducted at VCU’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction, found that a single session with a companion animal can facilitate a similar reduction of anxiety for hospitalized patients with psychiatric and mood disorders.
Other published studies has gone beyond AAT’s association with anxiety alleviation to investigate other positive outcomes. A recent study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practices explored the use of therapy dogs for pediatric patients admitted to a psychiatric hospital for acute mental disorders. Participants were split up into two groups: one that received the usual treatment and one that received animal-assisted therapy in addition to normal treatment. Upon admittance, each participant received an initial assessment of “global functioning,” which describes the extent that they can take part in everyday activities, and whether or not they have thoughts of self-harm or aggression. Participants’ global functioning was again assessed three months after leaving the hospital.
The results are promising. Patients in the therapy dog group had increased levels of global functioning, spent less time in the hospital, and had better school attendance. According to the authors, “the young patients who feel fragile, needy and dependent on others in the hospital context, can experience themselves as caretakers of someone else in the AAT environment. This experience can improve their sense of self-agency and self-cure, and these positive effects are not only limited to the human-animal bond, but can be extended to the patient’s global functioning and to the entire process of care.”
Motivating children with obesity to be more active
While it’s easy to see that owning a dog can make someone more active, the reasons behind increased activity for dog owners may not be transferable to animal-assisted therapy sessions. The dynamics of living with a canine companion full-time differs greatly from the therapeutic relationship between a patient and a therapy dog. Thus, researchers are looking to see if therapy dogs can also increase activity levels of children with obesity in clinical interventions.
One small study from Frontiers in Psychology looked to see if introducing a therapy dog in an activity session could affect a child’s motivation. Researchers measured physical activity of twelve children with an accelerometer and also recorded the children’s subjective ratings of satisfaction and motivation. Not surprisingly, participants in the therapy dog group had higher levels of physical activity compared to the control group.
However, the most interesting finding was that there was no difference between the two groups in regards to the subjective rating of motivation. This could be because the presence of a dog inspires an implicit desire to play with the animal, rather than an explicit motivation to be active. As the authors state in the study, “Based on motivation research and our findings, we propose that in the presence of a dog, children gain more pleasure from the activity…Therefore, the dog may have served as catalyst and accelerator for the activation of implicit motives, which enhances intrinsic motivation and further movement performance.”
Reducing stress and anxiety among college students
In the past 15 years, depression has doubled and suicide has tripled among college students. And yet, state budgets are constrained and universities are unable to establish adequate mental health services to meet the increasing needs of their students. Looking for more creative ways of helping students with limited resources, researchers have turned to therapy dogs.
In a pilot study recently published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, researchers provided animal-assisted therapy to 55 students in group sessions held twice-a-month during an academic quarter. These sessions involved a registered therapy dog, named Sophie, under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional. Researchers found a 60 percent decrease in self-reported anxiety and loneliness symptoms following the therapy. While the sample size is too small to generalize, this study is one of the first to apply animal-assisted therapy in a college setting, so it suggests further research is warranted as universities try to keep up with the health needs of their students.
More research is still needed
There is still a lot of work to be done to fully understand the possibilities of animal-assisted therapy and the effectiveness of therapy dogs. A substantial amount of the research conducted thus far on this topic has been limited by small sample sizes and study designs that are less than ideal. According to VCU’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction, most of the published studies select participants out of convenience rather than at random a method considered to yield more accurate results.
But as research with more rigorous methodology is conducted and as more findings are replicated and confirmed, we are discovering that a sense of connectedness to animals can be a powerful tool for improving our own physical and mental well-being. I would venture a guess that the dogs enjoy it, too.