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The Positive Effect of Therapy Dogs in Pediatric Hospital Settings

You know that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when surrounded by puppies? There is more to that sensation than meets the eye. Animal-assisted therapy, often known simply as pet therapy, has been proven to create positive health outcomes in individuals of all ages — from the very young to the elderly.

Specifically, the research surrounding therapy dogs among pediatric patients is quite remarkable. Therefore, an advanced nursing degree with a focus on pediatric primary care can equip healthcare professionals with the knowledge to utilize tools and programs such as pet therapy to best help their young patients.

What Are the Benefits of Therapy Dogs?

Using dogs as part of a medical treatment plan is not a new approach. This method has been implemented for centuries and first began on farms. In the late 1800s, nursing legend Florence Nightingale was a champion of using companion animals to aid patient recovery.

Currently, an increasing number of healthcare providers are recognizing the physical and mental health benefits of utilizing therapy dogs as part of a comprehensive treatment protocol. In fact, the research supports it.

One study by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute evaluated the effects of therapy dogs on pediatric cancer patients. Researchers discovered that such sessions provided a calming effect and helped stabilize a patient's blood pressure and heart rate. Another study, published by the Journal of Pediatric Medicine, concluded that animal-assisted therapy was beneficial for controlling pain and blood pressure in hospitalized children and teenagers.

Additional studies suggest further benefits of using therapy dogs, as pet therapy can do the following for patients:

  • Reduce anxiety that may accompany treatments, like chemotherapy, blood transfusions or dialysis
  • Lessen depression and improve overall mood
  • Foster better sleep — a crucial component of the healing and recovery process
  • Battle lethargy and fatigue by increasing energy levels
  • Diminish the loneliness that can occur from being confined to a hospital room
  • Boost mental stimulation — an important benefit for patients who may be experiencing "chemo brain"
  • Promote greater use of language and social interactions for patients on the autism spectrum
  • Mitigate fear and trepidation about treatments, particularly if they are repetitive and/or painful
  • Prevent boredom
  • Provide general emotional support and comfort in times that may seem very uncertain

Many of these are rooted in the chemical reactions that occur from the process of interacting with therapy dogs. Research has found that simply petting a dog promotes the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin — all hormones that play a role in elevating moods.

What Types of Illnesses Can Therapy Dogs Help Address?

As mentioned in the above study, therapy dogs elicited positive responses in pediatric cancer patients. But, patients with many more illnesses may benefit from pet therapy. Examples of other illnesses that can benefit from this approach include:

  • clinical depression
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • bipolar disorder
  • autism spectrum disorder
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • physical pain sustained from trauma

Therapy dogs can also be a calming presence in children undergoing dental procedures.

What Does It Take to Be a Therapy Dog?

It's important to note that therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs, and key qualities distinguish one from the other. Service dogs fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Trainers prepare them for a one-on-one relationship with the humans they serve and are legally permitted to accompany their person into public places.

Therapy dogs, however, have no affiliation with the ADA but do require certification from a reputable organization (for example, American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certification). They engage with multiple people/patients in various settings (hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, schools) and must obtain permission to enter public spaces that restrict dogs.

When used in hospital settings, therapy dogs typically undergo a thorough training process. For example, the therapy dogs employed by Texas Children's Pawsitive Play Program are specially bred and trained to work as therapy dogs in a pediatric hospital setting. These dogs receive over 18 months of training before they start interacting with patients. Of course, safety is of utmost importance to any healthcare organization that incorporates therapy dogs into their care regimens.

Help Is on the Way

Any healthcare professional working with pediatric patients knows how devastating it is to witness young people suffer. A healthcare provider's education should prepare them scholastically to provide the highest level of care possible. An advanced degree in pediatric care can give providers specialized knowledge to best help pediatric patients.

Learn more about The University of Texas at Arlington's Master of Science in Nursing in Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner online program.


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