Healing Puppy Power Put to Test for Childhood Cancer

In a landmark study by the American Humane Association, the ability of therapy dog teams to aid cancer victims is being documented at five children’s hospitals around the country.

Joshua sits on a hospital bed sobbing, surrounded by two nurses trying to insert an IV needle and by his Mom and Dad, trying their best to calm their scared and frightened four-year-old. But on this 6 a.m. Monday morning Josh, weary of his cancer battle, will have none of it. There have been too many needles. Now he is getting prepped for a third surgery. Joshua is a scared little boy and he knows what is coming, and he lets everyone within earshot know it.

Standing just outside the hospital room door I lift up my little therapy dog, Gordon, and we peek in. Immediately Josh’s Mom spots us, her eyes lighting up and she exclaims: “Josh, look, it’s Gordon! Gordon is here to see you.’’ They wave us in. Barely a minute or two later Josh is petting Gordon, sobs ebbing now into sniffles, focusing in our direction and his fluffy terrier pal, hardly noticing the IV connection being made on his other side. 

A little dose of therapy dog can calm crying children, and ease the trauma and torment that sometimes comes with healing, for the patients, their families and the medical staff. A dog can make a sterile hospital room seem more like home, encourage kids who need to walk after surgery to get up and escort the pup around the hospital corridors, or just relieve the boredom of being stuck in a hospital room instead of being out with friends running around a playground. 

In more than 6 years of making hospital visits with my wife Vicki, a longtime pediatric cancer researcher, and with our two therapy dogs, Gordon and Gypsy, we have seen them bring real therapy to thousands of people, both kids and adults. But until now there has been almost no real scientific “proof’’ of what therapy dogs contribute to healing, physical or mental.

Ernie and Vickie Slone with Therapy Dogs

 Ernie and Vicki Slone, with therapy dogs Gordon and Gypsy

That may soon change.

The American Humane Association has teamed up with Zoetis and the Pfizer Foundation to launch a 15-month study designed to document the specific medical, behavioral, and mental health benefits animal-assisted therapy may have for children with cancer and their families.

“American Humane Association has a history of wanting science backing our initiatives,’’ says Amy McCullough, AHA’s National Director of Animal-Assisted Therapy. “In terms of animal therapy, obviously there is a gap there in terms of science supporting the benefits that we know sort of anecdotally that therapy dogs are giving us. With our mission being about helping both children and animals, we saw the need for this study to really promote how therapy dogs can help children who are dealing with cancer.’’

In exhaustive preliminary research, including a review of existing literature and a pilot study at two children’s hospitals, AHA found “therapy dogs are really important in pediatric oncology settings, and they aren’t allowed to visit necessarily in all children’s hospitals in these units, but the ones that we talked to really talked about the benefits.’’

Child with a therapy dog. photo by AHA

That’s right, although thousands of teams visit patients around the country, not everyone buys into using dogs in therapy settings. At some hospitals, therapy dog visits are strictly limited, and at others they are not permitted. Having concrete evidence of the value of animal-assisted therapy can go a long way toward making this low-cost adjunct treatment an accepted and encouraged practice at more hospitals around the country. 

The full clinical trial will seek to confirm benefits identified in the pilot study, including:

  • Kids with cancer who are visited by therapy dogs have less stress, anxiety, and an improved, health-related quality of life

“Children with cancer and their families are not just dealing with physical concerns, there are also psychological issues – depression, anxiety, loneliness, being away from their classmates and school,’’ McCullough explains. “So these can have longer-term effects. We really want to show how animal-assisted therapy could be a really promising intervention to help not just the patient but the whole family interacts with the therapy dog, touching so many people there in a stressful situation.’’

  • Not only do the dogs themselves not get stressed by the visits, in fact the visits are mutually beneficial interactions

“The pilot study shows that post visit, the therapy dogs’ cortisol levels were lower than their baseline, indicating that they did not experience stress after visits,’’ McCullough says. “We also videotape the sessions using an ethogram to code the dogs’ behavior throughout the session, looking for signs of stress, whether it is yawning, lip-licking, looking toward the door, those kinds of things.’’

The five children’s hospitals participating in the study are:

  • St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa
  • Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland
  • UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento
  • UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center/Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts in Worcester/North Grafton, MA
  • Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville

This study is personal to me and my wife. Today and every day, more than 35 children and their families will get a cancer diagnosis. In total, more than 40,000 children in the U.S. undergo cancer treatment each year.

There are a lot of Joshes and their families out there battling this terrible disease, and we owe it to them to provide as much comfort and therapy as possible in this fight.

To read more about the initiative, visit www.caninesandchildhoodcancer.org

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