If you’ve ever snuggled up with your furbaby when you’re not feeling well, you know how much comfort they can bring. My girls have a unique way of lifting my spirits in times like those. That’s one reason that some hospitals and other facilities are using pet therapy as part of their treatment regimen for some of their patients, in particular, adding dogs at pediatric hospitals.
Dogs as healers
People have known about the value of using animals as a part of healing therapies for centuries. The first programs took place on farms, but in the late 1800s, Florence Nightingale recognized the value of companion animals in aiding patient recovery. Many nurses today have worked with therapy animals and report that visits from dogs have been beneficial for their patients.
What Is Pet Therapy?
Pet therapy involves letting patients interact with specially trained animals to help them manage or recover from a physical or mental condition. Examples include:
- Orthopedic surgery
- Heart disease
- Mental health disorders
- Conditions requiring long-term care
Companion animals like dogs and cats are the most common creatures that you’ll see in pet therapy.
How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy(AAT) Work?
You may wonder how AAT works. In hospitals that offer pet therapy, doctors can ask their patients if they would like to participate in the program, when somebody says yes, the hospital schedules an appointment with a therapy dog and the handler. Visits usually take about 10-15 minutes. Patients can pet the pooch and ask questions of the handler as they enjoy the benefits of these sessions.
Who Can Benefit From AAT?
In some ways, the question should be who wouldn’t benefit? But seriously, AAT can help people in a wide range of situations. In addition to the above examples, therapy dogs come in handy with:
- Children receiving dental care
- People with Alzheimers or dementia
- Veterans or other individuals who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- People with anxiety issues
- Caregivers and relatives of the patients that receive AAT
AAT Research Findings
How do we know that pet therapy can be helpful? Researchers have studied the effects of AAT on patients with a variety of conditions. Below are some examples of the findings.
- In one study, scientists followed 72 patients after they had a knee or hip replacement. Some people had the benefit of therapy dog visits before physical therapy sessions, while others did not. Individuals receiving AAT had noticeably lower pain scores.
- Another case review of 76 heart-failure patients demonstrated more significant improvements in blood pressure, neurohormone levels, and anxiety in residents that had sessions with a therapy dog.
- Doctors evaluated 15 dementia patients for the effect of AAT on social interactions and agitated behaviors. There were significant improvements in social conduct and decreases in excitement levels following a 3-week course of daily visits from a therapy dog.
- The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute funded a study that evaluated the effects of AAT on pediatric cancer patients. Results suggest that these sessions can provide a calming effect and help to stabilize blood pressure and heart rate.
- Other studies involving AAT for veterans suffering from PTSD and institutionalized elderly patients show spending time with a therapy dog can help combat depression.
How Therapy Dogs Help
Many people use visits from therapy dogs to offer emotional support for themselves or others. These trained animals provide a variety of patients with unconditional love and attention, which positively impacts both physical and mental health.
As the studies above demonstrate, sessions with therapy dogs can offer therapeutic benefits. The research suggests sessions with a trained pooch can positively impact heart rate, blood pressure, and other factors. There’s also evidence that patients recovering from major surgery or severe accidents may heal faster if they have a chance to interact with pets.
AAT can also positively affect an individual’s mental health. Patients suffering from conditions like autism, bipolar disorder, depression, and PTSD often respond well to sessions with a therapy dog.
Understanding the Difference Between Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs
You may be wondering what’s the difference between the dogs you see working with the blind, hearing impaired, or other physically disabled individuals and therapy dogs. Let’s take a look.
- Receive intensive training to assist a variety of disabilities
- Fall under the Americans With Disabilities Act(ADA)
- Have legal permission to accompany their owners in public places
- Have a one-on-one relationship with the person that they serve.
- Get training to support many people
- Visit individuals in a hospital, nursing home, retirement facility, hospice, or other venues
- Must pass an obedience and temperament examination to be certified
- Do not fall under the ADA
- Must have permission to visit public settings that normally restrict animals
How Dogs and Humans Heal Each Other
We’ve shared many ways that dogs can benefit humans, but did you know the effects can be reciprocal? It’s true!
How Dogs Help Humans
When you stroke Fido’s fur, your body releases the hormones oxytocin (AKA the trust hormone), prolactin, and serotonin. These chemicals work together to repress the stress response, lower anxiety, and elevate your mood. Because heightened stress levels tend to interfere with healing and the immune response, running your fingers through a pup’s coat promotes better health.
How Humans Help Dogs
What about the pooch? The great thing is that touch has a soothing effect on man and beast alike. That means pooches can experience similar benefits from the human-animal bond.
You still want to be cautious if you encounter an unfamiliar or nervous pup. In the case of an overly stressed animal, reaching out to pet him might have the opposite effect. Knowing the best places to stroke your furbaby and how to interpret dog body language can help you approach Fido in a non-threatening way.
Medical Benefits of Therapy Dogs For Kids
Some hospitals are using pet therapy as a part of their pediatric cancer treatment regimen. There is some anecdotal evidence that visits with dogs improved the emotional well-being of children suffering from the disease. The Canines and Childhood Cancer research project demonstrated that therapy sessions with a furry friend had a calming effect on the patients and their parents during the initial stages of treatment.
Other pediatric patients can benefit from a visit with Fido as well. Riley Children’s Health lists several ways that pet therapy can benefit kids.
- Help patients face painful treatments and conditions and reduce their fear
- Improved social behaviors for kids on the autism spectrum
- Reduce anxiety and depression and elevate the moods
- Boost energy
- Improve sleep
- Provide emotional support and comfort
- Offer a distraction and alleviate boredom
In-House Service Dog Programs in Six Pediatric Hospitals
With these benefits, it’s no wonder that pediatric hospitals are adding AAT to their treatment plans. In this section, we’ll review stories about how six different children’s facilities are incorporating dog therapy.
Medical Dog Program: Meet Our Hospital Dog Ralph
Children’s Hospital Colorado recently welcomed Ralph, a therapy dog, to their medical dog program. When it comes to pediatric patients at this hospital, the medical staff strives to treat the whole child, and therapy dogs like Ralph are an integral part of their efforts.
Ralph began his AAT training as a newborn puppy and spent 22 months in a Canine Assistants training program before he started to serve as a therapy dog. After working with children for five years, Ralph joined the staff at Colorado full-time in 2019. To arrange a visit with this loving pooch, medical providers need to make a request to the program.
Hospital ‘hires’ full-time comfort dog
After losing a 16-year-old oncology patient who loved dogs, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital added Farley to their staff in her memory. Farley is a golden retriever who started training as a puppy in 2017 and serves full-time in the hospital. Her purpose is to bring smiles and comfort to staffers and patients. A grant from PetSmart Charities helped fund the new program.
Therapy dogs bring smiles to children’s hospital patients
At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, pediatric service dogs help children find their smiles, get up and move around after surgery, or assist with occupational therapy. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center employs two furbabies. Drummer works with inpatients while Leica provides services for outpatients. Both dogs received their training through Canine Assistants.
Spending time with one of the pups can help kids cope with their time in the hospital in ways that human staff members can’t. These furry friends can jump in bed and snuggle up to the children to provide extra comfort. Spending time with the pediatric service dogs helps to make this hospital a more positive place.
Canines Comfort Kids at Seattle Children’s
There are 12 therapy dog teams at Seattle Children’s Hospital, including Christi Dudzek and Paddy. The yellow lab and her handler visit with pediatric patients and their families to help comfort and distract them from worrying about their condition. One example of how Paddy serves the children is when she visited a homesick youngster who was undergoing evaluation for seizures. Spending time with a furry friend helped the boy cope with his situation. The hospital continues to grow its program with the aid of grants from PetSmart Charities.
Golden Retriever one of the newest employees at Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children
Asteroid and her handler Steffani visit children and some adult patients at Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children. This team works full-time visiting people in the emergency room, intensive care, radiation/imaging, and more.
Their goals are simple:
- Comforting patients dealing with trauma and bereavement
- Helping to reduce pain
- Encouraging people to get up and walk after surgery
The program has been very successful, and the hospital hopes to add more teams in the future.
Baxter helps bridge the gap for patients with developmental delays
Dr. Teresa Brennan’s labrador retriever, Baxter Black, works with patients in the Autism and Developmental Pediatric Center of Lynchburg General Hospital. His presence helps calm and distract the young visitors during their appointments so that they’ll be more cooperative.
A Look at Some Dog Therapy Groups and Their Services
Where do the hospitals find therapy dogs? The American Kennel Club recognizes over 180 groups in the United States and Canada that offer AAT services. Many of these trained pups serve in hospitals or clinics. Let’s take a look at some examples
Who Certifies Therapy Dogs?
Therapy Dogs International is a volunteer-based organization that certifies therapy dogs. This group tests, registers, and regulates certified animals and their handlers. Teams that meet the requirements can provide therapeutic services to institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes. Qualifying pups must be at least 1 year old and pass a temperament evaluation. Dogs from all breeds and pedigree backgrounds are welcome to undergo testing.
AAT at Texas Children’s Hospital
The Pawsitive Play Program at Texas Children’s Hospital uses AAT dogs to support patients and their families. These furry pals have special training for the pediatric unit, and they work full-time with child life specialists. As staff members, the pups get regular breaks and receive weekly grooming. They go home each night with their handlers.
The Child Life Specialists in each unit will determine if a patient would benefit from a visit with an AAT dog. Therapy dog services include:
- Providing encouragement during therapy sessions
- Facilitating play for therapy purposes
- Offering comfort and distraction during procedures
- Providing psychosocial support for patients and their families
Facility Dog Programs At Children’s Hospitals
Different children’s hospitals are recognizing the value of facility dog programs to assist patients with procedures.
The Penn State Health Children’s Hospital
This hospital has two full-time pups that work with the Child Life team.
- Kaia has special training to assist kids during procedures by modeling how to remain calm.
- Becky works to comfort and distract patients during procedures.
These furbabies provide special interventions that are different from the therapy dogs that serve in the hospital.
Texas Children’s Hospital
Elsa and her handler, Sara Herbeck work full-time in the facility dog program at Texas Children’s Hospital. This team provides intervention therapy for patients suffering from trauma, abuse, or chronic pain. They also assist physical and occupational therapists by encouraging kids to start walking after surgery.
Children’s Health Hospital
In cooperation with PetSmart Charities, Children’s Health Hospital in Dallas, Texas, employs 8 registered service dogs. These lovable pups are part of the facility’s Pet-Assisted Therapy Dog Program. They help in a variety of ways, including:
- Providing patient interventions during treatments and procedures
- Supporting medical teams
- Engaging kids and parents to make them more comfortable during their stay
- Community involvement
Joy in Childhood Foundation® and the “Dogs for Joy” Program
The Joy in Childhood Foundation®, an independent charity backed by Dunkin’ and Baskin-Robbins, is working to place full-time therapy dogs at children’s hospitals throughout the United States. The foundation welcomes pediatric facilities to apply for a grant from Dogs for Joy to help fund the costs of starting and maintaining a facility dog program, including:
- Adopting the pooch
- Paying for food
- Grooming fees
- Toys and other supplies
Pawprints at Boston Children’s Hospital
Pawprints, with the support of PetSmart Charities, accepts volunteer therapy dog/handler teams to serve in the pediatric unit. Interested individuals must complete an application and go through an extensive screening and interview process that can last up to 6 months.
Fido has to be registered with a therapy dog organization and meet age, health, and temperament requirements. Handlers must also meet age requirements, agree to hospital guidelines, and pass a screening. There is a minimum one year commitment to making at least two visits per month.
Dogs Are Good Medicine
Thanks to organizations like PetSmart Charities and the Joy in Childhood Foundation®, kids across the nation are experiencing the healing power of therapy dogs at pediatric hospitals. With proper training, our furbabies can help bring comfort, relieve pain, lift the spirits, and more. It’s another good reason for us to call our pups man’s best friend.
Scarlett Gold is the head of content at FluentWoof. She is a Yorkie-Mixed mom and a true animal lover. Her primary focus is bringing readers the very best dog care resources and info to help owners better care for their canine companions.