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Full-time hospital therapy dogs benefit both patients and staff

Dogs aren’t just man’s best friend. They can also become hospital therapy dogs — an integral part of a healthcare team, providing emotional and psychological support to patients during times of terminal illness, according to a recent study. 

This study, undertaken in Japan, provides fascinating insights into the vital role that full-time hospital facility dogs (HFDs) play in the medical setting, particularly within the context of pediatric care.

The fascinating research, led by Natsuko Murata-Kobayashi from Shine On! Kids, Japan, and her team of colleagues, is slated for publication in the PLOS ONE journal on May 31, 2023. It delves into the impact of these specially trained dogs, whose purpose extends beyond that of regular volunteer therapy dogs. HFDs are groomed and trained by medical professionals to work in the hospital environment daily, becoming integral members of the healthcare team.

Hospital facility dogs (HFDs)

The concept of hospital therapy dogs isn’t new in Japan. The first HFD team was introduced in 2010 at Shizuoka Children’s Hospital, a partnership initiative with the non-profit organization Shine On! Kids. The program has since garnered attention, prompting researchers to understand better the role these dogs play in patient care.

To facilitate this understanding, a comprehensive 20-question survey was distributed among the 626 full-time medical staff at Shizuoka Children’s Hospital in 2019. The survey aimed to gather their experiences and observations of the HFDs in action. 

An impressive total of 431 healthcare professionals responded to the survey, with 270 of them having directly observed the HFD activities.

What the researchers learned about hospital therapy dogs

The findings from the survey were enlightening. Most notably, HFDs have been seen to make a significant impact in terminal care and patient cooperation. 

In fact, 73% of respondents reported that these dogs were “very often” or “always” beneficial in providing comfort and support during the final phase of life. 

The same percentage of healthcare professionals also observed that HFDs played a crucial role in winning over patient cooperation, proving to be a valuable asset in the healthcare sector.

Beyond these primary areas of impact, the majority of the medical staff also noted that the presence of HFDs positively affected their workload. Furthermore, these dogs were instrumental in assisting children who had difficulty adapting to schedule changes. 

Following an HFD intervention, it was observed that children became noticeably more expressive and communicative.

Clear recommendations garnered from the results

In light of these observations, the authors of the study conclude that the full-time model of having HFDs and nurse handlers is significantly beneficial in supporting patients in children’s hospitals. 

Yet, they acknowledge that further research is necessary to explore and optimize specific interventions of HFDs, promising an exciting avenue of inquiry into this compelling interplay of healthcare and animal-assisted therapy.

The study authors noted the significance of the finding that “terminal palliative care” provided by facility dogs working in Japanese children’s hospitals is highly valued by the medical staff. “Through accumulating evidence from research, we aim to contribute to the broader adoption of facility dogs in children’s hospitals both domestically and internationally.”

More about therapy dogs

Therapy dogs play an integral role in many medical and therapeutic settings, offering comfort, companionship, and emotional support to those in need. These dogs have been recognized for their ability to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, while simultaneously promoting overall well-being and improvement in social, emotional, and cognitive functioning.

Therapy dogs undergo a training process to ensure that they’re well-behaved, sociable, and comfortable in a variety of environments. They need to exhibit a calm and patient demeanor, showing tolerance with a variety of interactions, including petting, hugging, and sometimes crying or shouting from the people they’re helping.

Once trained, therapy dogs can work in numerous environments. They are commonly found in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and even airports. In hospitals, they often visit patients to provide comfort and stress relief. 

At schools, therapy dogs can help to create a supportive environment for children to learn and grow. Some therapy dogs even specialize in certain areas, like supporting those with autism, providing palliative care, or aiding individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

However, it’s important to note the distinction between therapy dogs and service dogs. While therapy dogs provide emotional support and comfort to many individuals, service dogs are specially trained to perform specific tasks for a person who has a disability, such as guiding a blind person or alerting a person with diabetes when their blood sugar levels drop.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive impact that therapy dogs have on physical health, mental well-being, and overall quality of life. They truly represent a remarkable blend of companionship and therapeutic intervention, making a significant difference in many people’s lives.


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