Therapy Dogs Seem to Boost Health of Sick and Lonely

Lara Suziedelis Bogle
for National Geographic News
August 8, 2002
Three years ago, Marcia Sturm was walking her golden retriever, Bo, near
her Los Angeles home. An employee from nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical
Center approached her and asked if she would be interested in bringing
Bo to the hospital's AIDS unit to visit with patients. She was—and
she and Bo have been a part of the POOCH (Pets Offer Ongoing Care and
Healing) program ever since.

Bo is one of a growing number of "therapy dogs" visiting people in hospitals, nursing homes, mental health centers, and shelters, where they do everything from lift spirits to assist with physical therapy.

Evidence of positive responses to such animal-assisted therapy has mostly been anecdotal. But a recent study on elderly nursing home patients now offers scientific support that brief weekly visits from man's best friend can have a positive therapeutic impact.

A Dog's-Eye View

Sturm and Bo visit the AIDS and cardiac care wards at Cedars-Sinai every other week. Volunteering more frequently isn't possible because Bo must be thoroughly bathed before each visit, and more frequent bathing causes skin problems.

"At first he was scared of the gurneys, and ran from an IV pole," said Sturm. But eventually, Bo got used to the strange noises and machines, and now "he knows the hospital better than I do."

Bo seems to love his job, and eagerly takes to his "uniform," a blue scarf around his neck that identifies him as a member of the POOCH program. "Once I take the scarf out, he knows" it's time for his shift at the hospital, Sturm said.

Once at the hospital, Sturm checks the book that lists patients who have requested a visit, and she and Bo begin their rounds. Because he is a big dog, Bo rarely gets onto a patient's bed, but he's tall enough that he can rest his head on the bed for a good rub.

Elderly patients tend to have fewer relatives and visitors, and are particularly charmed by Bo. While they may be too sick for lengthy visits, some are so happy to see him that it brings them to tears. Sturm said, "You'll hear them say, 'He likes me. He's my friend.'"

Not only does Bo cheer up patients in the units he visits; he's a big hit with the staff, too. He also helps break the tension of family members in the waiting room by taking their minds off their troubles for just a few minutes as they shower Bo with affection. All that attention makes for a dog-tired volunteer. "By the time we get home," said Sturm, "he's pooped."

It's not all fun and games, however. Bo's work is serious business, and he knows it. Sturm pays close attention to signals that Bo might be stressed, such as the time they were visiting a dying patient and Bo nudged at Sturm and headed for the door. But for the most part, Bo is happy to visit with anyone. "Dogs are not prejudiced," said Sturm. "They don't see color."

A Different Kind of Helper Dog

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."

Human-Animal Bonds

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?

"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!'"

Dogs With Jobs

Viewers of the National Geographic Channel outside the United States can watch the television series Dogs With Jobs.

Now in its third season, Dogs With Jobs explores new and unusual jobs and sheds more light on the powerful bonds between working dogs and their human partners. Every episode stars amazing dogs.

This season of Dogs with Jobs sniffs out a truffle hound in Italy and goes to Florida to track down a bat dog and a termite buster. Fourteen breeds never before seen on the show make an appearance, including Japanese Shiba Inu, Gos d'Atura Catala (Catalan sheepdogs), Spanish water dogs, the Hungarian Pumi, and Karelian bear dogs.

Visit our international Web sites for details of the National Geographic Channel listings in your country.

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