In the first controlled trial of its kind in Canada, a University of Saskatchewan study is shedding light on how therapy dogs can help patients in the emergency room.
Jane Smith’s 10-year-old English Springer Spaniel, Murphy, has been a therapy dog with St. John Ambulance since 2014 and is the first dog to visit an emergency room in Canada.
“I get to watch people light up with my dog. I get to watch people feel less pain because of my dog,” Smith said.
A new study at the U of S has found that therapy dogs like Murphy can help patients in the ER.
Over a span of three months in 2019, St. John Ambulance therapy dog teams, including Murphy and Smith, took part in 10-minute visits at the Royal University Hospital emergency department in Saskatoon.
Patients reported significant changes in pain, anxiety, depression and well-being after spending time with a dog, compared to those who didn’t.
“To watch the difference that the dogs make, it’s wonderful now that we have proof that shows that they’re doing that, that we have actual research. But any handler that visits will tell you that they can see the difference so easily,” Smith said.
Smith said she has witnessed this first-hand on many occasions, but there is one that has stuck with her.
She said she was at the ER with Murphy and was told there was a man who was agitated and doctors were considering either medicating or restraining him. However, it all changed when the man agreed to a visit with Murphy.
“He got up on the bed and the gentleman patted Murphy, we exchanged dog stories and after 10 minutes, he didn’t need medication or restraints, he was fine.”
Colleen Dell, one of the lead researchers alongside Dr. James Stempien, said 48 per cent of patients who spent time with a therapy dog experienced a reduction in anxiety.
“Coming into the emergency department is quite likely maybe the worst day of your life or one of them. So, we know anxiety is high and all of these things are going on, so how can we help alleviate that?” said Dell, who is the research chair and a professor in the Department of Sociology at the U of S.
Forty-three per cent of patients noted a reduction in pain, 46 per cent noted a reduction in depression and 41 per cent reported an improvement in well-being.
“We don’t perceive dogs to judge us and that’s very important. To have that listening ear where you might not want to hear anything back, but you can share, right? So, people talk about this with their own pet so you can kind of think of transferring that to the emergency department environment.”
Dell said research in this field is limited, but she hopes this will spark conversation about how therapy dogs can further help in the healthcare sector.
“I think people are recognizing how important animals can be to our well-being so why aren’t we looking there? And again, we have some really strong evidence to say yes, we should.”
The results of the trial were published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday.
The study was funded through a $20,000 Royal University Hospital Foundation research grant.
Smith said she is honoured that she and Murphy were able to take part in the study.
Like Dell, she hopes this will lead to therapy dogs being welcome in more hospitals and ERs.
“I just know the power of my dog, so I know the magic he can create.”