There has been so much media attention given to therapy dogs over the past 10 years that it is hard to run into someone who has not heard of their value. The use of therapy dogs has been so common that airlines have established guidelines as to what defines a therapy dog. More and more uses have been found to insert a trained therapy dog into a family for the benefit of all. This trend is likely to continue since dogs, as a general rule, have an innate desire to make their owners happy. Research about the use of therapy dogs has become so vast that even the most committed dog owner will find it hard to keep up. The web site Google Scholar returns almost 40,000 references to “therapy dog” in the last five years. All totaled, the search phrase revealed more than 2.2 million returns. The average person would have to more than 100 research reports a day just to keep up.
Case in point. There is a study performed by Case Western University (located in Cleveland, Ohio), considered by many to be one of the best research universities in the country. So any research coming out of the institution can be said to carry significant academic weight. Their May, 2019 study on therapy dogs can be found here. But instead of trying to interpret all the scientific jargon, I Heart Dogs has summed up the study nicely. It comes complete with videos and pictures for the reader to enjoy. But with that in mind there are other dimensions of the study to look into, so you are encouraged to read on.
We all love those dog and children stories where a faithful friend rescues, defends, and protects a small family member. Even without formally being trained, dogs offer a unique therapy that cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. Trained therapy dogs offer specific therapeutic advantages depending on the need of the child or adult. Depending on the need, the training of a therapy dog can take years. There is no indication whether the therapy dogs used in the research required special training, although the selection of the dogs did go through an evaluation process. It’s not clear whether therapy dogs prefer a specific type of work environment (you can make the case for Huskies or Alaskan Malamutes) but a dentist’s office? Such is the case in the Case Western Reserve University study, where 18 children were asked whether they would like a therapy dog to be present during their dental procedure. Now there are adults who also can make the case for a therapy dog to be present, making the study even more interesting.
The obvious goal of the research is to determine the effect, if any, that therapy dogs have to reduce fear and anxiety among the 18 selected children. The children were instructed to pat the dog whenever they wanted. They were also allowed to talk to the dog but this was not always possible with a dentist probing around in their mouth. Every single one of the children had positive feedback on the presence of the dog. 83% indicated their fear and anxiety issues were abated when patting the dog. There is sufficient evidence as to the value of therapy dogs in a dental setting. The dogs registered no complaints. All they did was make themselves available to the children. As they say, it’s a dog’s life. Some people say it is a cool job to have, and this is true in a couple of ways. Who wouldn’t like to sit around in an air conditioned office and let someone pat you on the head?
What comes next is working to understand why these therapy dogs bring comfort to the children. Trying to make the case that the dog keeps the children’s’ minds off of the dental procedure is questionable because in many cases the pain continues even after the procedure is completed. One odd thing about petting a dog is that not only does it help a person reduce their stress level, but the dog also experiences less stress. That leads to the question, “Where does the stress go?”
If you are an adult, after reading this story you may be thinking what happened to the studies that focus on adults as well. Well, there is good news on that front. The university plans to conduct further studies on both children and adults in the dental office environment, and with larger groups of people. You may want to contact the university if you are interested in volunteering (though after the publication of the article it may have become a lot harder to secure a spot). This is one of those stories that has a tremendous upside and virtually no downside.
One question that can be overlooked here is how is it that medical scientists and dental practitioners tell us we have canine teeth or canines? Is it an evolutionary thing where people hung on to their evolutionary past? Or was there a dog lover out there who wanted to permanently pay tribute to his faithful friend through the name? You can check out one answer from Colgate, but personally I find it difficult to trust anyone who is trying to sell me toothpaste. The question that follows is whether the therapy dogs are intelligent enough to know that humans call them canines. They are also called eye teeth, and their value is present in the culture when people use the expression, “to give one’s eye teeth in exchange for something of value.