Relax. The Dog-tor Will See You Now

Megan Brooks

March 15, 2022

Megan Brooks

A visit with a friendly dog may be just what the doctor ordered for patients coming to the hospital for emergency care.

Patients in the emergency room who spent just 10 minutes with a trained therapy dog reported less pain, anxiety, and depression and improved well-being, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada found.

"The ER is an important community resource but also a scary place for most people," James Stempien, MD, provincial department head of emergency medicine with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, who worked on the study, tells WebMD.

"People tend to visit the ER on the worst day of their life, either for them or a loved one. Interacting with a therapy dog can make the ER visit a little calmer. We have also seen benefit for the staff that get to interact with the dogs as well," he says.

"Thanks to our wonderful therapy dog volunteer teams, the cost is minimal and the result is priceless," Stempien says.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, builds on earlier "uncontrolled" studies by the Saskatchewan team.

Those studies showed that most ER patients wanted to visit with the therapy dog, if given a chance. After the encounter, patients reported feeling more comfortable, happier, and less distressed while waiting in the ER.

"A controlled trial was the natural next step," says study investigator Colleen Dell, PhD, of One Health and Wellness at the University of Saskatchewan.

The study was done at the Royal University Hospital (RUH) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan — the first emergency department in Canada to introduce therapy dogs to improve the experience of waiting patients.

Nearly 200 adults visiting the ER received either a 10-minute visit with a therapy dog and its handler in addition to usual care or just usual care.

The therapy dog visit had a positive impact on patient pain and related measures of anxiety, depression, and well-being.

"This did not occur in patients in the ER who did not visit with a therapy dog.

"This gives us confidence in the intervention," Dell says.

Pain is a major reason that patients come to the ER, and interactions with a therapy dog may distract from that pain, the researchers believe.

The study results lend more evidence to research that shows animals can help in medical settings, says Kara Rauscher, a licensed social worker and interim director of behavioral health for Nashville CARES in Tennessee, who wasn't involved in the study.

"There are clearly opportunities to replicate this study in other emergency departments to strengthen our understanding of the potential benefits of these programs," she says.

Part of her work at Nashville CARES, an AIDS service organization, has been supporting care that moves away from questions like, "What's wrong with you?" to patient-focused questions like, "What happened to you?" It is a practice known as trauma-informed care.

"This includes bringing in therapy dogs for staff to spend time with during the workday; anecdotally, our staff reported a reduction in stress and improvements in mood," Rauscher says.

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