For the study, researchers observed groups of children between the ages of 3 and 17 who were recently diagnosed with a form of cancer. Over the course of four months, children and their parents were visited by a registered therapy dog and a handler in an inpatient or outpatient clinic for 15 minutes each week. Children who were visited by dogs were able to pet, talk, brush its fur, watch tricks, or learn about the dog’s breed. The patients’ blood pressure and pulse were measured and recovered at the beginning and end of each session.
“The dog may have a calming effect on the patient," said the study’s lead researcher Dr. Amy McCullough, the National Director of Humane Research and Therapy for the American Humane Society. “Dogs are genetically disposed to be good companions to humans. They’re very good at reading our body language, seek interaction with us, and love attention. This study will be a milestone in understanding the benefits of the vital bond shared between people and animals."
The term “therapy dogs” sounds more clinical than it is. These animals aren’t actually providing specific assistance, like guide dogs for example. Rather, these are personal pets that have been given some form of training so that they can offer company and comfort to those who are suffering. But it is only within the last decade that researchers have honed in on how children with various forms of cancer handle animal-assisted therapy.
Ronald McDonald House – Helping Children Heal
Nine years ago, Cherilyn Frei, a Catholic chaplain and the director of family support for Ronald McDonald House New York, pioneered the animal-assisted therapy program. Ronald McDonald House New York provides space for pediatric care patients and their families to stay together while the children are receiving treatment. After a long day of treatment, kids can return to the House and reap the therapeutic benefits of an hour-long therapy dog visit.
“It really motivates the patient during treatment and recovery,” Frei said. “It very quickly became a part of the Ronald McDonald culture. Ten years ago it was unheard of to bring a service dog into Memorial Sloan Kettering. Now it’s a routine practice.” The Ronald McDonald House has had an active partnership with Make-A-Wish since they first opened their doors in 1978, and wish children staying at the House also benefit from the program’s therapy dogs.
The process of training, scheduling, and ensuring safety for the animal, dog handler, patient, and caretakers is a complex, yet finely tuned system. From thorough veterinarian examinations to testing the animals’ and handlers’ temperaments and stress levels—Frei makes sure that each of their 22 dogs’ hospital visits run smoothly and efficiently.
Medical, behavioral, and mental health improvements are seen in both the children and their support system of friends and family. Parents report emotional distress, fatigue, nutrition, and pain as the most problematic hurdles to overcome during cancer treatments. But of those four, pain is the most difficult and, unsurprisingly, can lead parents and caregivers to experience their own heightened form of emotional distress.
In 1860, Florence Nightingale said, “A small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick, for the long chronic cases especially. A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room.” Yet, the potential of an animal’s role in human health was first discovered and documented in 1969, when child psychologist Boris Levinson accidently discovered that while with clients, the presence of his dog “Jingles” alleviated much of the anxiety and resistance the elementary-school aged children possessed during sessions. The dog decreased the child’s mistrust for the therapeutic session and changed the child’s perception of the therapist.
Therapy dogs specifically help to normalize the hospital experience and provide comfort to children and their parents or siblings by reactivating a person’s cognitive cues regarding home and canine companionship. In addition, it gives a patient motivation to stay optimistic and get better enough to live beyond the treatment, ultimately alleviating distress, lowering blood pressure, decreasing episodes of crying, screaming, physical resistance, and verbal expressions of fear commonly seen in children undergoing cancer treatments.
To learn more, watch “Canines and Childhood Cancer” Study by American Humane Association.