Everybody wants an excuse to cuddle a puppy, and why not? Dogs have been our trusty companions since the stone age, and we all know the joy of spending time with one.
However, pups are starting to be used for more than just companionship. Many hospitals and other medical organizations have started using dogs as a therapy tool for their patients. In this article we dive into the science of this trend and find out: do therapy dogs provide real benefits to their patients (other than cuddles)? Or are therapy dogs nothing more than a myth propagated by our love for dogs?
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1. What We Thought
Nothing makes me happier than when a friendly dog visits my college campus. Their undying love for people, soft fur, and enthusiasm for life can brighten even the darkest day. But, I admittedly didn’t know much about the science behind our love for dogs until I started this investigation. Spending time with a pet is certainly soothing, and it’s nice having a companion. My hy-pet-thesis (sorry for that) was that therapy dogs do indeed have a calming effect on their patients that could lead to other medical benefits.
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2. The Research
I pored over dozens of scholarly articles, fact sites for therapy dogs, and of course a couple hundred photos (I mean just look at this guy!) in order to get my facts straight. One of the first things I discovered is that the effects of therapy dogs are extremely difficult to test. Proper experiments require a control group (a group with no variables changed) and a large sample size (to ensure accuracy), and both of these are really hard to set up when dealing with medical patients and therapy animals. Additionally, experiments are more likely to get published if they prove an effect, which means that most of the experiments that showed no benefits from therapy dogs never even made it to press.
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The second thing I noticed is that people overwhelmingly feel an effect- whether it’s scientific or not. From stressed college students during finals week, to autistic children, to senior citizens in nursing homes, almost everybody regards a visit from a therapy dog as a positive experience. And why wouldn’t they? Seeing a happy dog can definitely have an effect on a person; my next quest was to find out if this was grounded in science or not.
The most thorough report I read was an article published in Frontiers in Psychology that aimed to identify the effects of human-animal interactions using a variety of experiments as sources. Although at first an intimidating block of text, I highly recommend giving it a read. The main points are as follows:
- Being in the company of dogs promotes positive social interaction
- Dogs can possibly increase trust in people
- Dogs reduce self-reported depression and anxiety
- Being in the presence of dogs can reduce indicators of stress
- Indications of positive effects on the heart and circulatory system
Although the validity of these experiments is difficult to confirm for the reasons mentioned earlier, there is statistically significant evidence for all of the above.
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3. The Conclusion
There you have it. We’ve arrives at our final destination and from the articles examined, I’d say my earlier guess was close but could use some adjustments. While we can’t be entirely sure that therapy dogs are medically beneficial to their patients, a therapy dog can easily comfort and relax a patient with almost no negative side-effects.
So, next time you’re recovering from a major surgery, feeling stressed out of your mind, or just plain lonely, I highly recommend you find a dog. After all, they are man’s best friend!
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