While Harleigh Turner explains the theories of family dynamics behind her work as a child life specialist at Children’s Hospital of Georgia, her colleague scoots down to lie on the floor at her feet. Nugget the therapy dog not only aids Turner in her work with patients but new research shows she can provide important benefits for child cancer patients and their families.
In a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, 106 children at five children’s hospitals around the country were randomized to either receive weekly visits for four months with a therapy dog like Nugget or just receive standard therapy. Children in both groups had less anxiety at the end of the study, which could be them learning to live with a “new normal,” said Dr. Amy McCullough, principal investigator on the study and national director for humane research at American Humane, which helped sponsor the study.
But children who got regular visits from the therapy dogs also had less disease-related worry and had improved school function, “so that was positive as well.” she said.
The biggest benefit was seen in the parents. Those whose child got regular therapy dog visits reported less parenting stress, particularly in regards to communications with the child, family members and the clinical staff. And that likely affects the whole family “because we know that when parents are doing better that carries onto the family and children as well,” McCullough said.
That follows what is known as the “contagion theory,” in that what impacts one family member is bound to then also affect others, Turner said. The effect of her entering a patient room with the dog is immediate and palpable.
“It very much decreases the mood in the room,” Turner said. “Everyone becomes much more relaxed, especially at a first clinic visit” or first admission.
Nugget, who was essentially raised to be a therapy dog since she was a puppy at Canine Assistants in Milton, Ga., also has the same effect on long-term patients like four-year-old Bristol Peterson of Harlem, who has been treated at the hospital for 15 months for leukemia and then a fungal infection. After Turner lays down a yellow barrier, Nugget leaps onto the bed and quickly snuggles up to the chatty Bristol. The girl, who loves My Little Pony figures, wants to share them with her friend.
“Grab all of them so Nugget can pick,” she tells Turner. Nugget patiently sniffs each one as Bristol holds them up to her nose and then lays her head on the girl’s leg. She proceeds to line the ponies up Nugget’s side as the dog lies quietly on the bed.
“She does love to sleep,” Turner said.
“I know,” Bristol said, stroking the dog’s head.
The dogs helping parents with communication makes sense to Bristol’s mother, Fancy, as she talks about all that the family has gone through. This kind of extended conversation “could never happen if the dog wasn’t here to distract her,” Peterson said.
It also makes sense that it would improve communications between family and staff because they sometimes have to guard what they say in front of the child, she said. With Nugget in the room, Bristol “doesn’t have a clue what we’re talking about over here,” Peterson said, as she watched Turner and Bristol show Nugget a video on a tablet. It’s something Turner had noticed often before.
“It’s definitely a means for me to open the door for conversation and just being in the room with the health care team with the dog, I can tell that parents are more likely to advocate and ask questions just because they are more comfortable doing so with Nugget in the room,” she said. “For some reason, they are more at peace and more likely to advocate for their family.”
Nugget can also have a calming effect, particularly during stressful procedures. The most upsetting for Bristol was when her dressings were changed but that stopped the first time Nugget came in and lay at her feet, Peterson said.
“It was a game-changer,” Peterson said. “That was the first time she didn’t cry during a dressing change.”
Nugget, who has been the hospital’s full-time therapy dog for about two months, also has a kit of medical devices, like a blood pressure cuff and a syringe, which Turner can use on the dog to show a child that a procedure isn’t so scary.
Previous smaller studies have shown that animal-assisted therapy such as the one Nugget provides can help decrease a child’s pain perception or improve recovery from anesthesia. American Humane also wanted to make sure that it was not stressful for the dogs so the study looked at their stress hormone levels and observed them for stress behaviors and found it did not increase their stress levels, McCullough said.
“We want to make sure this is a mutually beneficial interaction, that the dogs are enjoying these interactions as well,” she said.
The study is one of the first large, multi-center randomized control trials into animal-assisted therapy in childhood cancer and the group felt it was important to do it to add “rigor” to the scientific evidence for its benefits to both families and dogs, McCullough said. While it is already done in a variety of settings, from schools to hospitals to nursing homes, she hopes it will encourage more facilities to seek it out or expand their programs.
“I am hoping this data will show that not only is it safe for therapy dogs, with proper safety protocols, to be visiting children’s hospitals but expanding the programs to all types of different units,” McCullough said. “That then parlays into, well, we need more therapy dogs so encouraging those people with well-behaved pets to look into volunteering in this way.”
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213