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Therapy Dogs Are Helping Kids With Cancer

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Justine Alford

Guest Author

3160 Therapy Dogs Are Helping Kids With Cancer
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Humans have kept canine compadre’s for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why. Not only have they helped us out in a myriad of ways, gathering food, guarding us and carting us around, but their companionship is second to none. Needless to say: dogs are awesome, and here is yet another reason to praise our wonderful pooches. Putting evidence behind the claim, a new study is suggesting that therapy dogs can improve the quality of life of children with cancer and their families.

If you’re not familiar with therapy dogs, these aren’t animals that are actually providing some kind of treatment or assistance, like guide dogs for example. Rather, these are people’s personal pets that have been given some form of training so that they can offer company and comfort to those in need, for example the sick or the elderly.


“Dogs are genetically disposed to be good companions to humans,” lead researcher Amy McCullough from the American Humane Association told IFLScience. “They’re very good at reading our body language, seek interaction with us, and love attention. So I think there are some unique qualities – the result of their domestication – that make them especially suitable for this kind of work.”

Therapy animals are becoming more and more commonplace, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, with many hospitals recruiting them for visits with patients. Dogs are the most popular, especially in hospitals for hygiene and practical reasons, but horses, cats and goats are also used. There has been anecdotal evidence for the benefits they bestow on patients, namely psychosocial and quality of life, but scientific studies to back this up have been lacking. Given their increasing popularity, it’s time researchers put data to the claims.

The researchers used a variety of dog breeds in the study, but made sure the same dog visited the same patient each week. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The present study is first of its kind in terms of size and scope, according to McCullough, and involves multiple sites in the U.S. So far, 68 children newly diagnosed with cancer have been enrolled, but the study is ongoing; at this stage, it’s about half way through and the sample size is expected to double, so the findings are very preliminary.


Participants have been split into two groups, one of which is receiving a weekly, 15-minute visit from a therapy dog, and the other is a control. The dogs are matched to each patient, and they see the same dog for each session throughout the duration of the study.

Before and after each visit, blood pressure and pulse rates are taken from the children as a measure of stress. The researchers also used the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory to look at the anxiety levels of both the participants and their parents.

So far, therapy dogs have come out shining. Both blood pressure and heart rate seem to be more stable in those receiving visits compared with the control group, demonstrating significantly less variability. And while both groups are seeing a trend towards decreased anxiety, early results are also suggesting that therapy dogs help alleviate anxiety in parents.

There also seems to be a shift in attitude towards the treatment sessions, McCullough says, with children actually not wanting their chemotherapy to end because they don’t want the dog to go. “There have been some nice surprises over bonding,” she added.


The work is obviously far from over, but it’s encouraging to see that such a simple intervention appears to be helping children cope during such a difficult time. Hopefully more positive results will come, encouraging more people to consider these warm fuzzy friends for help. 


healthHealth and Medicine
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  • cancer,

  • dogs,

  • domestication,

  • stress,

  • chemotherapy,

  • anxiety,

  • therapy dogs