Dog Sledding and Pediatric Cancer Patients

Study uses adapted activity to improve physical and psychological health.
By JoAnna Lou, October 2015
Pediatric cancer patients have so much of their childhood stolen from them, and attempts to protect them can sometimes do more harm in this area. Often caretakers with good intentions will shield these kids from physical activities. However, a new study has shown that some pediatric cancer patients can actually benefit from a little more adventure in their lives, on both a physical and psychological level. Given that the activity studied was dog sledding, and what we know about the positive effects of therapy dogs, I think that the pups may have had a lot to do with the outcome as well!

Researchers followed eleven children, aged 10 to 18 years old, on an expedition organized by Sourire à la Vie, a French non-profit that supports the use of adapted physical activity for young cancer patients. The kids received training and exercises in preparation for the excursion, then traveled with doctors and nurses to race dog sleds in Northern Canada. They also participated in the pups' care while they were there.

The study found that not only can most pediatric cancer patients participate in adapted physical activities, even during treatment, they showed an improvement in both physical and psychological health. Laurent Grélot, professor at Aix Marseille University, explained that the activity had many benefits. "It avoids cardiovascular and muscular deconditioning, can decrease treatment induced fatigue, and can help in maintaining social integration."

No doubt the canines had an impact on the result as well. "One of the main reasons why we chose dog sledding was to create a unique sportive experience based on change of scenery and building a strong relationship with animals," explains Frédéric Sotteau, founder of Sourire à la Vie.

As a next step, the researchers are planning to do a randomized trial to further evaluate the benefits of adapted physical activities for children with cancer. However, you don't need to look at the data to see the positive effects.

"Before my cancer diagnosis, I used to do a lot of sport, but then I lost self-confidence and my body was not able to cope with physical efforts," says Merwan, an 18-year-old patient. "This trip in Canada transformed me. I am in shape again, and now I know I am able to practice sport again."

This program seems like a wonderful way to combine physical activity with the healing properties of the human-canine bond!

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.