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."

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