Researchers Learn Optimal Working Conditions For Therapy Dogs


Therapy dog: Photo: Gerhard KollerTherapy dog: Photo: Gerhard KollerMore and more, dogs are being used in the management of human health and rehabilitation situations. Dogs are trained to help blind persons identify visual cues in their sphere, to help hearing-impaired persons identify auditory cues, to be companions to heart patients and cancer patients, and buddies to soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder and other debilitative conditions.... But what needs do therapy dogs have to keep them happy and alert?  Specifically, what can humans do to reduce any stress these dogs might experience?

Lisa Maria Glenk at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna is a pioneer in the research of animal perspectives in animal-assisted therapy for humans. She, along with colleagues from the University of Vienna and the Karl Landsteiner Institute of Neurochemistry, Neuropharmacology, and Neurorehabilitation and Pain Treatment, investigated the quality of life of dog 'co-therapists' in drug rehabilitation therapy programs in order to establish some standards for professional use of dogs in therapy.

Stress causes a myriad of problems in dogs and shortens their lives. When dogs are stressed they exhibit outward signs, including hair loss, scaling, biting themselves or their leashes, shaking, panting, licking, and an inability to maintain eye contact with humans. If these observations are made by a therapy dog owner, the dog should be removed from the situation and not returned to it until the stress is removed.

But what creates stress in a therapy dog?  In a previous study, Glenk and her colleagues were able to identify, through saliva samples (measuing cortisol levels) and videotapes of dog behaviours, elements that caused therapy dogs to exhibit stress. The main source of stress they identified was being leashed, not being able to move around, to leave the room and come back at will, and to drink water at will. 

In the current study, established to confirm the findings of the earlier one, five experienced therapy dogs were followed in several group therapy sessions with drug addicted persons. Two human therapists were present at each session, and the dogs had freedom to come in and out of the therapy room at will and to drink available water.  Saliva samples were taken at random times during the therapy sessions.

In this study, the researchers found no significant difference in cortisol levels between the dogs' work sessions and days off. These findings are published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.


Source: University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna