The Many Healing Capabilities of Therapy Dogs

therapy dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Regular visits with therapy dogs may improve mental health and well-being among people seeking treatment at addiction and mental health facilities
  • Almost all (96 percent) of the clients said they were glad they met with the therapy dog, and 33 percent said they felt a lot of love and/or support from the dog
  • Among children and youth, 26 percent said they felt better, calmer or cheered up after spending time with the therapy dog, and 23 percent said they felt the dog listens to them

By Dr. Becker

Dogs have a way of boosting your mood, providing a source of companionship and staying by your side when you’re in need of a friend. These priceless benefits can be enjoyed not only by dog owners but also by others in need, such as those in seeking treatment at addiction and mental health facilities. In Saskatchewan, Canada, researchers followed therapy dog visits with residents and reported that regular visits may improve mental health and well-being.

Staff members reported participants smiling and laughing when the dogs were around, and experiencing feelings of love and acceptance. As CBC News reported, one observer explained, “The word love was said many times. With the one-on-one experience the person felt comfort — able to open up … I could see it on her face, the love she felt from [the therapy dog]. She kept on smiling during her entire session."1

Three Pilot Studies Highlight Dogs’ Many Healing Abilities

A team of researchers from the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) carried out studies on therapy dogs at three different test sites, each showing unique therapeutic benefits from the dogs. According to U of S researcher Colleen Dell, Ph.D., in a news release:2

“Researching this area is not easy. There are so many factors that need to be accounted for. That said, we are confident in sharing that the dogs can have an impact on an individual’s healing journey in a multitude of ways, from providing comfort through to increasing therapeutic alliances with service providers.”

One of the studies took place at the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program at the Métis Addictions Council of Saskatchewan Inc. (MACSI) in Saskatoon, examining the concepts of love and support in relation to visits with therapy dogs. Participants received 45-minute visits from a therapy dog and its handler, including discussions about animals as a form of support in recovery.

Almost all (96 percent) of the clients said they were glad they met with the therapy dog, and 33 percent said they felt a lot of love and/or support from the dog. Further, 85 percent of the adults said they felt calm after spending time with the therapy dog. The researchers concluded:3

“In this study, the clients overwhelmingly shared that the dogs made them feel happy … overall, the vast majority of clients in the MACSI program very much enjoyed the time they spend with the therapy dog team, and specifically the dog, and felt better because of it.”

At the Calder Center Residential Addictions Treatment Program for Youth and Adults, meanwhile, 83 percent of participants again responded that they liked spending time with the therapy dog and felt increased calm after the visit. Among youth, feelings were rated, on average, as one happy face higher after spending time with the dog. One youth resident responded, “[I felt] happy, mood instantly went up, dog loves unconditionally and it’s good to feel that.”4

The third study involved the Saskatoon Health Region, Mental Health & Addictions Pet Therapy Program for children and youth. The response was again overwhelmingly positive, with 26 percent saying they felt better, calmer or cheered up after spending time with the therapy dog. Twenty-three percent also said they felt the dog listens to them. According to the researchers:5

“This finding suggests that incorporating the therapy dog into the counselling session helps to create a comfortable setting that may have a calming effect for clients. The literature supports that the integration of an animal into therapy promotes a nurturing and safe environment for clients. Further, it specifically shares that an animal can instill relief from stress.”

Therapy Dogs Used to Support Prisoner Health, Lessen Pain Medication Use and More

Animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) have also been used among Canada’s correctional population, among which mental health and additions are a major concern. Many inmates also have a history of trauma. According to research by Dell and colleagues, introducing visiting therapy dogs may benefit mental health while positively influencing the larger prison environment.

“Kisbey, the St. John Ambulance therapy dog, was able to interact with prisoners in ways that can be difficult, if not impossible, for human staff,” the researchers explained, adding:

“For example, physical touch is a basic human need but is discouraged within a correctional institution. It is also a source of trauma for many of the inmates … animals can ‘satisfy the … need for physical contact and touch without the fear of the complications that accompany contact with human beings.’

… As practitioners seek ways to reach, engage, and support those with very traumatic lives and significant difficulty connecting to others, therapy dogs can be a helpful bridge. The effortless humaneness of the dogs’ interactions with prisoners can be a great lesson.”

There is seemingly no end to the emotional and mental benefits dogs offer to humans, but there are physical benefits as well. Research published in the journal Anthrozoos even found that animal-assisted therapy decreased the need for pain medication in people who had received joint-replacement therapy.6

In addition, research by the Delta Society, the most recognized name in the field of animal-assisted therapy, suggests holding, stroking or even simply seeing an animal may lower blood pressure while lessening feelings of hostility and increasing self-esteem.

If you want to experience some of these benefits first-hand, simply pet your dog or, if you’re not a pet owner, visit with a friend’s or neighbor’s. In addition, therapy dogs and their services are becoming more widely available in hospitals, nursing homes, public schools and even libraries. You can even volunteer at an animal shelter, helping pets in need while they give back to you in spades.

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