Not Just Another Furry Face: The Scientific Benefits of Therapy Dogs
The six-year-old copain wags his tail as he steps into the front door of Ottawa Hospital. The sights, sounds, and smells of a hospital could easily distract an ordinary dog - but not Copain. As one of several volunteer therapy dogs visiting Ottawa Hospital, he and his K9 colleagues have an important role to play: helping staff, patients, and visitors overcome the challenges of hospitalization.
His supervisor Michel has been a volunteer in the animal therapy program at Ottawa Hospital for ten years, four of them with Copain.
Copain has been a dedicated therapy dog volunteer at Ottawa Hospital since 2017.
“Copain is very relaxed,” said Michel. “He waits for people to come up to him, but once he gets close to a person and connects, he’ll lean on them. People say it’s his way of hugging. “
This hug is more than just a hug. Research suggests that interacting with a specially trained therapy dog has many brain and body benefits for hospital patients and staff.
Happy is undergoing extensive training so he can be part of the hospital team that cares for patients with compassion.
As Dr. Christine Boisvert, a clinical and rehabilitation psychologist at Ottawa Hospital, explains when dealing with a therapy animal like Copain:
- Calms the nervous system. Heart rate and breathing rate slow down. Patients and staff report that they generally feel calmer and more relaxed.
- Promotes physical and emotional health. Stroking an animal can help a person with an arm injury get back to using their arm. Caring for an animal can help a person living with depression feel meaningful.
- Releases feel-good hormones (in animals and humans). Higher dopamine and oxytocin levels increase the feeling of security and connectedness. These hormones are released within just ten to 15 minutes after the interaction
- Helps humanize the hospital environment. Hospitals can sometimes feel like large, impersonal rooms. Therapy dogs help patients realize that, at its core, a hospital is a place where people help people.
- Improves the patient-provider relationship: Patients and staff who interact with therapy animals report that they are more comfortable sharing information.
- Decreases loneliness. Long hospital stays can cause loneliness in some patients. Visiting a therapy dog couple ensures anticipation, variety and real community between therapy dog and patient.
Sandy is one of several volunteer therapy dogs that support patients, staff, and visitors to Ottawa Hospital.
Not every dog is as well trained as Copain, Happy, and Sandy, but you can get some of the same benefits from interacting with a dog or other friendly animal in your life. So the next time you scratch an animal behind the ear and find yourself smiling and relaxing, it’s not just because of their cute face – it’s science!
Via the pet therapy program at Ottawa Hospital
Ottawa Hospital’s volunteer resources have long-standing partnerships with St. John Ambulance, Ottawa Therapy Dogs, and the Ottawa Humane Society. Therapy animals are trained and certified by these organizations, but they and their keepers must also be volunteer hospital workers. All inquiries and inquiries about the hospital’s pet therapy program should be made through the hospital’s volunteer resources.
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This website provides general facts, advice and tips. Some of this may not apply to you. Please speak to your doctor, nurse, or other health care professional to see if this information is appropriate for you. They can also answer your questions and concerns.