Therapy dogs are becoming more widely used than ever before as individuals and organizations realize the benefits of using their skills and services. They are already widely used by people who suffer from a variety of conditions in their own homes, and by organizations such as care homes, schools, the police force, and hospitals. The main purpose of therapy dogs is to offer people a source of comfort and to relieve stress and anxiety in a variety of situations. Just some of their roles include offering comfort to grieving families, supporting victims of crime, helping children to cope with the school environment and soothing people with dementia. According to I Heart Dogs, a new role has been created that makes good use of the skills of therapy dogs. A team in Southampton in the UK are using the dogs to support children in hospital by using the dogs to undergo procedures first, as this can help younger patients who need to undergo multiple tests and procedures.
The SCH Therapy Dogs organization currently has six Golden Retrievers in its team that have all been specially trained for their roles; Archie, Hattie, Jessie, Leo, Milo, and Quinn. This team of volunteer dogs visits the young patients in Southampton Children’s Hospital. Their original purpose was simply to make the patients, staff, and visiting families smile. Just one of the roles they undertake is meeting and greeting patients and visitors as they arrive at the hospital, to make spending time in the hospital seem a nicer and less stressful experience. Since they were first introduced to the hospital, their role has also extended to supporting sick children while they undergo medical examinations and procedures. They will also sit with the patients to offer them comfort, as many children find their time in the hospital extremely stressful.
Their roles have now progressed further as the SCH Therapy Dogs are directly involved in various medical procedures, which makes them a unique team. The doctors what will happen next by demonstrating on the dogs. For example, if the child needs an MRI, one of the dogs will go into the machine first. Similarly, if the doctor intends to palpitate the child’s abdomen, they will get one of the dogs to lie on the bed first to have their abdomen palpitated. Having the dogs demonstrate the procedures in this way helps the children in a variety of ways. First, the mere presence of dogs is proven to have a calming effect on most people. Second, showing the children the procedures in this way helps the children to fully understand what is happening and to feel some control over the situation. Finally, it allays any fears that they have and give them confidence that they will not come to harm.
Of course, the dogs do not simply wander around the hospital undertaking this work on their own. There are four trained handlers who work alongside the dogs in the hospital. Hannah, Karen, Liz, and Lyndsey are the handlers working in partnership with the dogs, and each has different experiences of working with animals. Lyndsey is a member of the team, and she holds the team’s Certificate in Animal Assisted Therapy, Activities, and Learning. Before joining the team, she also studied Animals & Human Health at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human Animal Connection. Lindsey has said that she and the other team members are exceptionally proud of the work they do with the dogs in the hospital and that they visit as many sick children as possible.
In 2019, the team visited more than 3000 patients. This means that more than 3000 children had their experience of a hospital stay or visit improved by the work of the dogs and their handlers. The team says they are looking forward to continuing with this good work this year. This means that thousands of more children will have the opportunity to have their patient experience improved. Although this work is unique, therapy dogs have been supporting both children and adults in hospitals. According to Pet MD, the use of therapy dogs can have both physical and emotional benefits for patients. Some of the main physical benefits that have been proven in studies are lowered blood pressure, reduced pain, and improved cardiovascular health. In terms of the emotional benefits, evidence suggests that therapy dogs can increase socialization and reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
The work that is undertaken by therapy dogs is often broadly referred to as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). This work can take on various forms and often differs from one hospital to another. While the therapy dogs at Southampton Children’s Hospital work to help children through their treatment, dogs in other hospitals may take on many alternative roles. Some examples of the roles undertaken in hospitals by therapy dogs include helping patients to recover from surgery and supporting patients while they face health challenges.
Like the team of dogs in Southampton, many therapy dogs’ roles extend to the staff and the families of the patients. Working in a hospital is often stressful for the staff, and they can often face difficult and emotional situations. Some therapy dogs are trained to offer comfort in these circumstances. Similarly, having a loved one ill and receiving hospital treatment is stressful and upsetting for their close family members. They can often benefit from spending time with a therapy dog.
It is possible that there are further roles in a hospital that dogs could undertake in the future as the skills they possess and the benefits of having them around are receiving greater recognition. Likewise, it is possible that the work currently being undertaken by the therapy dogs in Southampton will inspire other hospitals to start a similar program. This could lead to more children around the world having a less stressful experience while they are receiving treatment in the hospital.