Most people are familiar with dogs that assist their blind or otherwise disabled owners. Therapy dogs offer a different kind of help. Some pay informal social visits to people to boost their spirits, while others work in a more structured environment with trained professionals like physical therapists and social workers to help patients reach clinical goals, such as increased mobility or improved memory.
The POOCH program at Cedars-Sinai is an informal one, started six years ago by licensed social worker Barbara Cowen, who was working as the volunteer coordinator in the AIDS unit.
In the program, a dog may stay with a patient for as little as five minutes or as long as an hour, depending upon the patient’s needs, according to Cowen. Currently there are about 30 volunteers in the program, and there is a waiting list of people eager to join their ranks.
Therapy dogs can be of any size and breed. In the POOCH program, they range from a large golden retriever like Bo to a tiny chihuahua named Bubbles.
Temperament is key to being a good therapy dog. Being well trained is not enough; it must also be easygoing and patient, and comfortable with strangers.
“They can’t be the kind of dog that only responds to its owner,” said Cowen.
National organizations such as the Delta Society and Therapy Dogs International, Inc. evaluate potential therapy dogs and train and register the ones that pass muster.
Therapy dogs themselves must be monitored to ensure their own health and well-being. Handlers keep an eye out for signs of stress—such as excessive panting, a tucked-under tail, or erratic behavior—to make sure the dogs are not overburdened by their work.
A trial period to assess the dog’s comfort level usually helps figure out which dogs will enjoy the work. Cowen said, “If the dog doesn’t look like it’s having a good time, it just can’t make it.”
Cowen said that nurses have noticed that after a POOCH visit, patients sometimes have slower heart rates and they require less pain medication. These kinds of informal stories abound, but scientific studies of the effects of animal-assisted therapy are rare.
Researchers in St. Louis recently completed a rigorous, scientifically controlled study showing that brief weekly visits with a therapy dog reduced the loneliness of elderly patients in a long-term care facility. All the patients chosen for the study had indicated that they cared for pets earlier in their lives, and would like to do so again.
Marian R. Banks of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in St. Louis and William A. Banks of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine reported the results of their study in the July issue of Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.
They used a scientific measure known as the UCLA Loneliness Scale to test 45 patients before and after the visits, concluding that patients who spent as little as half an hour a week with a therapy dog were significantly less lonely after only six weeks, when compared to a control group.
But what is it about the dogs that creates such a powerful effect?
A study on Human-Animal Interaction suggests that therapy dogs can increase oxytocin levels (responsible for bonding) and dopamine (responsible for happiness), while lowering levels of cortisol (that comes from stress).
“It’s not that the animals have magic vibes coming out of them,” said William Banks. “It’s a quality-of-life issue. It’s about giving people access to what they like and enjoy.”
According to Banks, the elderly patients in the study were not confusing the therapy dogs with childhood pets, but being reminded of the joy animals had brought them in the past. “Their response seemed to be, ‘I had forgotten what a pleasure this was!'”