Dear Doctors: My 8 year old nephew is in the hospital with kidney problems. He wants to see the therapy dog who visits the children on his floor, but my sister refuses. How can I reassure her that it’s safe? I’m afraid of interfering, but I’ve read that therapy dogs can help children in the hospital feel better.
Dear reader: Yes, there is ample evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that interacting with a dog or other type of therapy animal can benefit hospitalized patients. Studies have shown that when a person comes into physical contact with a therapy animal, whether through patting, petting, or hugging, it prompts their body to release certain hormones and chemical messengers. These include serotonin, oxytocin, and prolactin, which play a role in feelings of calm, relaxation, and happiness.
Interacting with a dog can help reduce levels of stress and anxiety that are common in hospital settings and have been shown to interfere with good health and healing. Patients report that spending time with a therapy dog helps ease fear, reduce loneliness, promote relaxation, and ease physical pain.
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In one study, rehab patients receiving regular visits from therapy dogs began to sit and stand for longer periods in order to interact with the animals. Therapy dogs are even brought into intensive care units, where they help patients struggling with a deeply alien environment. And although your question refers to children, therapy animals help patients of all ages, as well as hospital staff, cope with a difficult environment.
In order for therapy animal programs to be as safe as possible, hospitals follow strict guidelines and procedures. Dogs that participate in animal-assisted therapy programs are carefully selected for their temperament and behavior. Their handlers are often required to undergo a special training program as well. Additional guidelines address issues such as vaccinations, veterinary certifications, and proper grooming. Visits with a therapy animal are made only in the presence of the handler and are coordinated with the patient’s medical team.
Learning the specific details of your own hospital’s guidelines and procedures regarding therapy dogs your nephew wants to meet can help your sister feel more comfortable about the idea of a visit. If possible, and if your sister wishes, she could meet the dog and its handler ahead of time. This would allow him to ask questions and interact with the dog. This way she can see firsthand how the dog is behaving.
However, you need to be prepared for the fact that you may not be able to change your sister’s mind. Being in the hospital is often stressful and even scary, no matter how old someone is. And in this case, the experience affects both a sick child and a worried parent. It’s easy to understand how, in her desire to protect her son, your sister might take a stand on one of the few aspects of his hospital stay that she can control. Remember to be gentle when approaching the subject and be prepared to accept her decision.
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