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    Therapy dogs to the rescue . . . warming our hearts

    A children’s hospital uses therapy animals to promote healing for individuals of all ages.

    I loved the article “Puppy brigade reports for duty” in the most recent issue of Contemporary Pediatrics, written by Ms. Hester! I highly recommend that you read it. I believe you will love it, too. Additionally, if your children’s hospital is not a participant, be forewarned—you may experience a compelling desire to lead initiatives similar to the puppy brigade at your hospital or in your office practices. Ms. Hester presents a heartwarming story describing the puppy brigade program’s design and its process for helping children to heal at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio while receiving both inpatient and outpatient care. 

    Dog ‘defangs’ dental fears

    Of course, this is not the first time we are reading about the benefit of therapy dogs and other animals in the healing process. A while ago, I read a newspaper story describing a pediatric dentist who permitted his dog in the office on a few Fridays a month. Once the “word was out” and parents were telling other parents about the great experiences their children had at the dental office, numerous mothers called the office to schedule an appointment only on the day “Dr. Dental Dog” was available to assist during the visit. And assist Dr. Dental Dog did! Each child, depending on age and size, could either sit in the chair with the dog, or pet the dog who snuggled up to the chair as the child received treatment. In pediatrics, we refer to such activities as “tear stoppers,” and we all love that—happy child, happy parent, happy practitioner. 

    One evening, I received a call from a young dentist who wanted to consult on a pediatric case that he would be seeing the next morning. He informed me that he had spent 3 years in an adult specialty residency, lived in a rural area, and had not provided dentistry for young children since dental school. The child he was to treat had sustained an injury to his front teeth and the mother knew of the dentist’s expertise with adults and wanted him to help her child.

    I gave a few suggestions on ways to talk to the child and suggested a book and toy the child may like when he entered the office. The next evening, the dentist called to report that the book and toy had been ineffective. When the dentist walked into the room with the child seated in the dental chair, he encountered a large German shepherd, who was the child’s seeing eye dog, sitting erect next to the chair. He thought to himself, “I like dogs” and immediately and easily communicated with the child. He learned that the dog had been with the boy in the park when the injury occurred. The dog’s barking summoned the mother (who was nearby with a younger sibling) for immediate help, and he remained with the child on transport. Indeed, another story of a therapy dog to the rescue!

    Dearth of data—dog or otherwise

    I feel certain that many practitioners can provide similar stories of kind, caring encounters between the therapy dogs and all age children and adults. Ms. Hester informs us that 90% of hospitals in the United States allow therapy animals and animal visits. Just terrific! However, the question that emerges from Ms. Hester’s article is: Why are multisite, randomized controlled studies lacking on the effectiveness of therapy animals in healing for individuals of all ages?

    A quick CINHAL search of the literature using the search terms “animal therapy” or “pet therapy” or “animal assistance” AND “randomized controlled trial” revealed 33 studies of which only 5 studies were conducted with children or adolescents as the study participants. We believe in evidence—so challenge yourselves to design and implement studies to provide a knowledge base rather than a “head-and-heart base” for animal therapy and healthcare outcomes. Then challenge your adult colleague providers to collaborate on these studies. Maybe the next time someone reports on animal therapy outcomes, 100% of all US hospitals will have an active therapy dog (or animal) program supported by the best available animal therapy research. 

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