Many health care facilities employ “therapy dogs” to help treat people with conditions ranging from cancer to mental illness to post traumatic stress disorder. The proponents of therapy dogs swear that the presence of the pooches has measurable therapeutic benefits for the patients, and the sheer number of therapy dogs — by some estimates, there are more than 50,000 therapy dogs working in the United States alone — suggests that a lot of people agree with that conclusion.
But, how do the dogs feel about their job? Is working with sick people a stressor? A recent study tried to find out.
The study looked at 26 therapy dogs that worked in five different pediatric cancer wards and interacted with more than 100 patients. It focused on generation of cortisol, a hormone that is associated with stress in canines, which can be measured by taking swabs of canine saliva. (If you’ve ever had a dog, you know they produce plenty of that.) And, because cortisol occurs when dogs experience both good stress and bad stress, researchers matched the cortisol levels with canine behaviors associated with “bad” stress, such as shaking and whimpering, to determine whether therapy dogs found their work to be stressful.
I’m happy to report that the study concluded that therapy dogs are not stressed by their work, and instead seem to really like it. Moreover, the study was able to rank the activities that are more enjoyable for the dogs. Activities in which the patient and dog directly interact, such as a patient talking to the dog or playing with the dog and its toy, are more enjoyable for the pooch than activities in which the dog is more passive, such as when a patient brushes the dog’s coat or draws it. The findings will allow facilities to shape their programs to make them more enjoyable for the hard-working dogs.
These results won’t come as a surprise to dog lovers, who know that their four-legged pals love to be around the friendly human members of the pack. I’m confident that therapy dogs really like to interact with patients and that they sense, intuitively, that the patients reciprocate those feelings. I’m also confident that therapy dogs provide real benefits to the patients, although there are skeptics out there. The bond between dogs and human beings is real, and runs deep. If you’re sick, being around a dog may not be a cure, but it is bound to make you feel better.