Most people have memories of seeing a dog and breaking into an involuntary smile. Walking down a sidewalk, most humans barely give other humans a nod of acknowledgement, but dogs frequently draw cries of joy and spark conversation. It’s no secret that dogs can lift people’s moods. That, and the science behind dog therapy, is why comfort dogs have become popular in hospice care.1
The Science Behind Therapy Dogs
Interestingly, there’s actual scientific research showing how comfort dogs can decrease pain and lift mood in human patients.1-5 One such study was conducted by Dawn Marcus, MD and colleagues and published in the medical journal Pain Management. They randomly divided 235 patients at a pain clinic into two groups. The control group took quick surveys about pain, fatigue, and distress before and after sitting in the waiting room. The experimental group took the same survey before and after spending time with a certified therapy dog. Patients visiting even briefly with the therapy dog reported significant improvements in pain, mood, and measures of distress while the waiting-room group did not. It doesn’t work for everyone, but dogs can be good medicine.
Names for Comfort Dogs
Therapeutic dog visiting goes by many names. These include:
- Comfort Dogs
- Therapy Dogs
- Animal-Assisted Therapy
- Canine Visitation Therapy
- Therapy Animal Programs
- Animal-Assisted Activities
The names for this do not include “emotional support dogs,” “working dogs,” or “service dogs.” Those titles describe something different. Some groups are trying to get away from the titles that sound medical in nature, because these dogs are often useful in non-medical situations as well. For instance, they have been used in reading programs finding that some children are more comfortable reading aloud to a dog than to an adult. Comfort dogs visit the survivors of disasters at temporary shelters, participate in return to work programs after shootings, and more.
Are Some Dogs Better than Others for Palliative Care?
It’s worth noting that in the research above, doctors used “certified” dogs. No breed has cornered the market on comfort dog work, but some dogs are more prepared for this work than others. Multiple organizations certify or register dogs for therapy animal work. When they are available, it’s better to call a certified or registered team than to try to evaluate dogs oneself.
Dogs who maintain certification or registration with a comfort dog group have passed rigorous screening and health checks which usually include issues such as:
- Dogs demonstrate basic obedience and will listen to their handlers.
- Dogs are not prone to jumping on patients or stealing their food.
- The handler knows his or her dog enough to make sure everyone is safe and happy including the dog.
- Dogs have all the proper vaccinations and good health status.
- Dogs are not afraid of medical equipment. It can be disappointing to patients if a dog visits but cowers due to an unfamiliar walker or IV pole.
- Dogs are not easily startled, nor are they stressed by varying levels of human interaction.
- Dogs are not aggressive or fearful toward humans or other pets.
- Dogs have the right temperament and enjoy the work.
Dog therapy groups refer to their members as “teams” or “dog-handler teams.” A dog alone is not certified for animal assisted activities. Specific human-dog teams are certified, because dogs may perform differently with different handlers. A certified / registered comfort dog team will usually have liability insurance for the work through their accrediting organization.
A title of emotional support dog does not mean dogs have met the qualifications above. Emotional support dogs provide comfort for their owners who have a mental health disability. Similarly, service dogs are highly trained and ultimately assigned to a single owner with a disability to support that owner. A seeing-eye dog for a blind owner would be an example of a service dog.
Therapy Dog Organizations You Can Call
Some hospice agencies maintain relationships with local comfort dog groups to facilitate visits for their patients. However, most comfort dog groups welcome individual families to call and request visits for hospice patients at home. Larger comfort dog groups include:
- Engelman SR. Palliative care and use of animal-assisted therapy. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying. 2013 Aug;67(1-2):63-7.
- Marcus DA, Bernstein CD, Constantin JM, Kunkel FA, Breuer P, Hanlon RB. Animal-assisted therapy at an outpatient pain management clinic. Pain Medicine. 2012 Jan 1;13(1):45-57.
- Braun C, Stangler T, Narveson J, Pettingell S. Animal-assisted therapy as a pain relief intervention for children. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2009 May 1;15(2):105-9.
- Sobo EJ, Eng B, Kassity-Krich N. Canine visitation (pet) therapy: pilot data on decreases in child pain perception. Journal of Holistic Nursing. 2006 Mar;24(1):51-7.
- Marcus DA. Complementary medicine in cancer care: adding a therapy dog to the team. Current Pain and Headache Reports. 2012 Aug 1;16(4):289-91.