Animals have been helping humans cope with mental and physical health challenges at least since 1796, when Quakers in England opened York Retreat, a psychiatric facility where residents wandered freely—and still do—through courtyards and gardens stocked with birds and other small animals.
Interest in the health benefits of the human-animal bond waned as the scientific method took hold in medical and psychiatric research; but studies since the 1980s have shown that pets can decrease people’s blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and feelings of loneliness, as well as increase opportunities for exercise, outdoor activities, and socialization, among other benefits.
Therapy dogs are probably the most widely recognized example of what is known as animal-assisted therapy. Therapy dogs, used across a wide range of medical conditions, are trained to be obedient, calm, and comforting. The dogs and their owners (who are referred to as handlers) both receive special training, testing, and certification to ensure that interactions with patients will be safe and effective.
During the typical therapy dog visit, a patient spends about 10-15 minutes petting or playing with the dog while the handler monitors the situation, makes sure the dog is well cared for, and answers any questions the patient may have about the dog.
“In medical settings, therapy dog visits, typically provided through volunteer services, are targeted to patients, visitors, and health care workers to help reduce stress and enhance mood,” wrote Dawn A. Marcus, MD, professor of anesthesiology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, PA, in a review article on the scientific basis of animal-assisted therapy.
At the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, the Caring Canines program has 17 pairs of therapy dogs and handlers. The dogs range from a 10-lb poodle mix to a 90-lb shepherd. The dogs and their handlers must meet nationally recognized requirements and undergo two to three orientation sessions to make sure they’re comfortable with patient visits. They also undergo monthly follow-up meetings with staff to make sure they’re functioning well in the clinic setting and that infection control procedures are being properly followed (eg, hand washing before and after each patient visit).
Therapy dogs and their handlers visit patients in a variety of settings at the Mayo Clinic: the Children’s Hospital activity room; therapy group sessions for patients in the recovery process; the pediatric outpatient area, where they help children deal with anxiety in the waiting room; and the cancer education center, where they offer comfort and support to patients.
“I had become depressed about many things,” said one patient who was visited by a therapy dog at the Mayo Clinic. “The pain seemed overwhelming, and my mind darted from what seemed like one impossible problem to another. The Caring Canine team arrived and I felt such peace. I let go of pain and problems.”
Studies in recent years have documented the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for outpatients with fibromyalgia; children coping with stress and pain after surgery; patients with cancer undergoing multimodal radiation-chemotherapy regimens; improving well-being, anxiety, and mood among university students; and improving health and well-being among older war veterans and patients in hospice, among an increasing number of other conditions and populations.
“It made the hospital feel more like home,” said a patient at the Mayo Clinic. “These visits made me feel peaceful, happy, and relaxed.”