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Animal-Assisted Therapy
Do sick children benefit?
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Bobby and therapy dog Swoosh hang out.
Bobby and therapy dog Swoosh hang out.

Every year, nearly 13,000 children are diagnosed with cancer, and some 40,000 are receiving treatment. It’s a scary time for both the children and their families, and anything that helps make it less frightening is a good thing. Can dogs do that?

Those of us who love dogs already know how much they improve our lives, especially by providing absolute love and comfort when we most need it. This healing human-canine bond is the basis for the ever-growing use of therapy dogs in all sorts of settings, including nursing homes, retirement homes and schools, and as part of disaster-relief teams.

Therapy dogs have become common in hospitals as well, but access varies by institution. Dogs in hospitals raise general concerns about human safety, including increased infection risks, allergies, phobias and aversions. While there is a wealth of positive, anecdotal evidence for the benefit of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) in all these settings, there’s little hard evidence to verify it. To overcome remaining barriers to AAT as part of their treatment programs, hospital staff and risk managers need proof.

Enter the American Humane Association (AHA). With financial support from Zoetis, a global animal health company, and the Pfizer Foundation, a charitable offshoot of the international pharmaceutical giant, AHA is in the final stage of a rigorous, three-year, peer-reviewed, controlled study, “Canines and Childhood Cancer: Examining the Effects of Therapy Dogs with Childhood Cancer Patients and their Families,” or CCC for short.

The study aims to document the specific medical, behavioral and mental-health benefits AAT may have for children between the ages of 3 and 12 recently diagnosed with cancer, as well as for their families. The third and final clinical stage of the study includes 100 children receiving treatment at five participating children’s hospitals across the country, including Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, Ore.

Janice Olson, MD, MHA, is medical director of the Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Program at Randall and manages its CCC study. “We have a long tradition of pet therapy, at least since I arrived 15 years ago. So when this study opportunity came up, I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ We already had dogs visiting in in-patient, so why not out-patient as well? Staff didn’t have any concerns. Everyone was more than happy to participate.”

According to Amy McCullough, AHA’s national director of humane research and therapy, the hospitals were selected because they had existing therapy dog programs. “It was difficult to recruit hospitals for the study,” Amy said. “Doing research [has an impact on] their resources and staff. Some only allowed therapy dogs one day a week, or in one room outside of the treatment clinic. It was interesting to see the differences between hospitals across the country in terms of how therapy dogs were used. There are no standards. Some hospitals were willing to modify their policies to allow for our study—for example, in how often dogs can visit and where.”

The study requires that the dogs be registered with a therapy dog organization, be credentialed and meet the participating hospital’s criteria. Some hospitals’ criteria exceeded those AHA would have required.

To answer the question, “What can we do to improve the day-to-day health, healing, and quality of life of children suffering from cancer, and the families who suffer along with them?” the study tracks blood pressure, heart rate and psychological responses in the kids, their families, and the staff and caregivers who enjoy the benefit of working with therapy dogs. (Sadly, 50 percent of the children and families enrolled in the study will not be spending time with the therapy dogs because they are in the control group required for the study to have validity.)

Ryker Halpin was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2014, the month he turned six. He and his parents, Allison and Matt Halpin, are enrolled in the CCC study at Randall. They have an English Mastiff at home, so Allison and Matt knew Ryker would be comfortable with visits from a therapy dog. Ryker had been in the hospital a week when they were approached about participating. “Given all the dreadful news we’d just gotten, it seemed like a great opportunity, something positive to look forward to,” said Allison.

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Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, resides with her two dogs in the mountains of central Idaho.

@rebeccawallick

Photos courtesy of the American Humane Association

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