A Dog’s Touch Pet Therapy Makes a Difference in Patients’ Lives

The first time Cynthia Hinckley brought a dog into a hospital, even before she launched her therapy-dog business 15 years ago, she left with plenty to think about.
She came across a woman in the psychiatric ward who enthusiastically pet and talked to Hinckley’s dog. That didn’t seem odd – until she learned the woman’s history.

“The facility’s director told me that woman had been in a hospital for 20 years, and the first time she had spoken was to the dog,” she said. “It was pretty powerful. And I knew there was no turning back. This was something I had to do.”

Hinckley has run Bright Spot Therapy Dogs since 1992, training dogs and human volunteers alike in bringing some animal attraction to hospitals — including Cooley Dickinson in Northampton — as well as nursing homes, and other health care settings throughout Western Mass. and parts of Connecticut. And she’s far from alone; pet therapy has attained greater acceptance in recent years as the simple powers of animals — mainly dogs — have been thoroughly documented.

“Research has shown that the simple act of stroking a dog will lower blood pressure, and they’ve found that with psychiatric patients, it will often reduce the amount of medications needed,” Hinckley told The Healthcare News. “With cardiac patients, they’ve found their heart rate can be lowered. So this is certainly a therapeutic thing, as well as an emotional thing.”

Arf and Science

The mysterious appeal of animals has been observed in medicine for decades. In fact, according to a 1984 study, simply watching tropical fish swim in an aquarium at a dentist’s office works as well as hypnosis for patients nervous about an impending surgery.

Meanwhile, a University of Minnesota study demonstrated that small animals such as gerbils, birds, and fish calm down children in doctors’ waiting rooms.
But when people think of pet therapy as a field of care, they usually think of dogs.

“Every dog is different,” Hinckley said. “My dogs are English setters, and they happen to be very placid, mild-mannered dogs. They’ll stretch on the floor and patients will gather around and pet them, and the dogs will kiss them back. Sometimes, in a nursing home, one will be on a chair so somebody in bed can reach him at eye level.”

“Mild-mannered” is a description that fits virtually all therapy dogs, she was quick to note, and any dogs in her program are screened for temperament — they need to be emotionally predictable — and obedience-trained so that they’re in the total control of the handler.

That doesn’t mean patients and residents have to stay calm, said Nancy Clark, an occupational therapist at Life Care Center of Wilbraham. She recalled one family that met Charlie, the facility’s Labrador retriever, for the first time.

“I was walking him around the building, and a family came in with a wheelchair-bound woman,” Clark said. “When she saw Charlie, she nearly jumped out of her wheelchair, and she reached over to pet him, she started making these guttural, excited sounds, like she was trying to talk.

“The family said to me, ‘my God, we haven’t heard her mumble anything for years.’ As it turned out, she once had a dog that looked just like that one,” she continued.

Knowing how people react to dogs, she claimed, is why the rehabilitation center started making Charlie a part of residents’ lives to begin with. “He brings that extra piece of excitement and encouragement to people during what can be a difficult time,” Clark said. “People are constantly asking me, ‘where’s Charlie?’ If it’s been two days, they get worried.”

However, if a perception exists that therapy dogs bring smiles but not much else, recent studies continue to puncture it.

For example, the American Heart Association reports on a recent study at UCLA Medical School in Los Angeles that sought to determine the potential benefits of animal-assisted therapy on cardiac health. To do so, researchers studied 76 hospitalized heart failure patients and their reactions to a visit from either a human volunteer and dog team, a human volunteer only, or no visit at all.

“We looked at the dogs’ effects on variables that characterize heart failure, including changes in cardiac function, neuroendocrine (stress hormone) activation, and psychological changes in mood,” said Kathie Cole, a clinical nurse who headed the project.

The intervention lasted 12 minutes.  In the volunteer-dog team group, specially trained dogs (of 12 different breeds) would lie on patients’ beds, so patients could touch them while interacting with the volunteer-dog team.

Researchers found that anxiety scores dropped 24{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} for participants who received a visit from the volunteer-dog team. Scores for the volunteer-only group dropped 10{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, while the control group’s score did not change.

“This study demonstrates that even a short-term exposure to dogs has beneficial physiological and psychosocial effects on patients who want it,” Cole said. “This therapy warrants serious consideration as an adjunct to medical therapy in hospitalized heart failure patients. Dogs are a great comfort. They make people happier, calmer, and feel more loved. That is huge when you are scared and not feeling well.”

Ruff Times

Dogs can be trained to perform a number of assistance tasks for elderly or rehabbing patients, but at its core, pet therapy has more to do with the simple presence of the animal — and, of course, that physical contact so strongly associated with anxiety reduction.

Delta Society, a national organization that trains animals for therapy roles, touts several dozen benefits, all based on established research, from decreasing loneliness in a long-term care facility to decreasing anxiety in hospitalized heart failure patients; from increasing social and verbal interactions in a rehabilitation setting to simply increasing someone’s capacity for nurturing and empathy.

Hinckley saw many of these benefits when she turned her pet-therapy interest into a busy side career. Today, Bright Spot volunteers bring dogs into 42 different facilities. Still, she had plenty of hurdles to overcome, particularly in the case of hospitals, where issues such as infection control and allergies are serious business.

“It took us two years getting the program going” at Cooley Dickinson, she said. “We had to work through the policies approved by the Infection Control Committee, and the dogs and volunteers had to be screened to be able to work on the medical or psychiatric floor.”

Infection control in the hospital setting, as it does in person-to-person interactions, comes down to the little things, such as handwashing, Hinckley explained.

“The patients all have to use an alcohol rub before petting the dog, and after the session, they must wash again with alcohol,” she said. “Few diseases are passed between humans and dogs, but certain ones are out there.”

In addition, patients at CDH without spleens aren’t allowed any canine contact because of an increased risk of infection. And in all cases, if a dog is allowed onto a bed, a new outer sheet is placed down first, and carefully folded, removed, and washed when the visit is over.

As for allergies, patients are screened and interviewed to make sure they can be around dogs, as well as their roommates when dogs are brought to inpatient rooms.

Patients are interviewed upon admission to the Life Care Center of Wilbraham, Clark said, to determine whether they have allergy or anxiety issues that could limit their interaction with Charlie. But most residents welcome the dog’s presence with open arms — and a few too many treats, to judge by Charlie’s excess weight.

“Having a dog really helps with people’s stress level,” Clark said. “Here, people are sick, they’re in a strange environment away from home, and Charlie makes it a more normal experience for them.”

“One of the biggest problems in the elderly is loneliness,” said Jan Garneau, the center’s admissions director. “He helps take that away from them.”

Petter Days

Hinckley relates the story of a therapy dog who visited a man at Cooley Dickinson — a patient who was in the final stages of terminal cancer.

“None of the medications they used could calm this man down. He was in extreme pain and very agitated,” she said. “The only thing that calmed him down was when this dog lay down and leaned against his chest — and that’s exactly what the dog did for hours, while the man stroked him.

“The dog accomplished something where medications had completely failed,” she continued. “It’s extremely rewarding to hear things like that.”

As pet therapy continues to branch into the mainstream, proponents expect to hear more such stories — knowing that, whether someone has a long life ahead or only a few days left, there’s just something about the touch of a dog.