Pet Therapy: Do therapy pets need their own therapy?

This week, B.C. Children’s Hospital Foundation received a $200,000 grant from PetSmart Charities of Canada, to fund the expansion of their Dog Visitation Program.

The hospital currently retains seven volunteer dogs and handlers who visit pediatric patients four days a week. The grant, which will be provided over three years, will double this service by supporting 15 certified St. John’s Ambulance therapy dogs to visit seven days a week, and will also fund a new child and therapy dog playroom within B.C. Children’s Hospital’s new expansion project.

There is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that this is money well spent, as the power of pets to lift the spirits of children while undergoing medical treatment is well-documented.

Pediatric patients who have canine company can anticipate benefits such as lower systolic blood pressure and less anxiety and fear during and following painful procedures, and in some instances, reduced recovery times.

Furthermore, a 2006 study published by researchers at San Diego State University found that children visited by therapy canines experienced less post-operative pain compared with children who didn’t receive a canine visitor. Psychologists speculate that such benefits arise because dogs provide comfort and distract the children from their negative procedures. Four-year-old Blayke Vandusen has benefited first-hand from the hospital’s Dog Visitation Program. Blayke has a chromosomal disorder called Turner Syndrome and is a regular patient at the hospital.

“It became a big deal and traumatic for Blayke to come into hospital,” explained Blayke’s mother, Cassandra Vandusen.

But, when Molly, a Shih Tzu, was brought in one day last July to help Blayke cope with her anxiety, Vandusen witnessed a miraculous change in her daughter.

“Her face lit up. You could see the fear and anxiety just disappear. All eyes were no longer on Blayke. She was able to focus on something else and just relax. Now, she can just leave her anxiety at the door when she comes in,” says Vandusen.

As the owner of a dog that went through the St. John’s Ambulance visitation program some years ago, I can appreciate the positive impact that these programs can also have on adults. I recall in particular, how one lady reacted on seeing my springer spaniel Pippa approach her bedside. Her first words in two years after suffering from a stroke were: “I used to have a spaniel.” These events are intensely moving, not just for the patients, but also for the handlers and caregivers who witness them.

Despite the countless examples of how hospitalized children and adults can benefit both physically and emotionally from animal visitation programs, as every human therapist knows, providing emotional support to those in need comes with a personal cost. Once in a while, therapists may themselves need help from a therapist.

This raises the question: Do therapy dogs experience stress while on the job? And if so, is the welfare cost to the animal justified by the potential gains to the patients?

Indeed, there is some controversy regarding the toll that therapy dog programs can take on the animals. In the highly regarded Handbook of Animal Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines (2010), an entire chapter is dedicated to this subject, where signs of stress-related fatigue in therapy animals is described as being “common”. Concerns are also raised that many handlers appear oblivious to the stress signals emitted by the therapy animals in their care.

Unfortunately, I have also observed this lack of insight from handlers first-hand. Sweating paws, panting, muscle tension, restlessness, paw lifting, lip licking, yawning and a heightened startle response are just some behaviours that dogs can display when they are stressed — behaviours which handlers should be, but are not always, aware of.

While concerns for the welfare of therapy dogs are valid, that is not to say that a well-run program can’t still provide all of the anticipated benefits to humans while safeguarding the well-being of the animals involved. And some aim to be proactive in determining whether a dog and handler are a good fit for such a program.

“We have had to turn teams away before when the handlers have not been able to recognize when their dogs are not happy,” explained Leigh Ciurka, who is the provincial coordinator for the therapy dog programs in B.C.

David Haworth, a veterinarian and president of PetSmart Charities agrees. “Too much human pain can be hard on the dogs, and handlers, administrators and even patients should be aware of what stress looks like in dogs and be prepared to act in the animal’s best interest when needed.”

With this in mind, well-run dog visitation programs must include regular physical and mental health checkups on dogs that have been certified to participate, as well as comprehensive training for dog handlers. Education of this nature further provides opportunities to teach children about dog behaviour and how to determine when a dog needs space, which is a crucial part of bite prevention programs and humane education.

As Haworth explains, “I think that the growth of organized Animal Assisted Therapy programs is a hugely positive step in healthcare. The benefits of incorporating animals into human healthcare far outweigh the drawbacks, and the assumed risks are actually turning out to be minimal in reality.”

When the welfare of the dogs and the children is prioritized, the result should be a win-win all around. The St. John’s Ambulance therapy dog program started in Canada in 1992, and with 3,300 handler-dog teams currently registered in the country, there is huge potential to do good.

• Rebecca Ledger is an animal behaviour scientist, and sees cats and dogs with behaviour problems on veterinary referral across the Lower Mainland.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s