Therapy Dogs Ease Stress for Students and Staff

—By Kim Krisberg, special to the AAMC Reporter

Every week in the lobby of Bard Hall, the dormitory for Columbia University Medical Center, students gather to say hello to a special guest. Some days, 20 students might stop by for a quick visit. On other days, it’s closer to 100. Some visit for five minutes, others for an hour. But most are likely to end the encounter feeling lighter, happier, and more relaxed.

The special guest at the center of the weekly gatherings is one of five therapy dogs—perhaps Ely, the 180-pound Irish wolfhound, or Bella, the 15-pound Havanese—who visit the residence hall a few times each week to give students a small, but much-needed, break from the stresses and demands of medical school. An activity of the university’s Center for Student Wellness, the pet therapy program is designed to bring the psychological benefits of human-animal interaction to all of Columbia’s health sciences students.

Justin Laird, PhD, assistant director of the wellness center, said the activity is so popular that the certified pet therapy dogs and their handlers often find students waiting for them as they arrive at Bard Hall. Many students just want to pet the dogs for a few minutes, while some will crouch down for a big hug, Laird said. Other students just smile as they watch the dogs bring happiness to others.

“Medical students see a lot of pain and suffering and loss on a regular basis, so this [program] offers a type of rejuvenation,” said Jane Bogart, EdD, director of the Center for Student Wellness. “They have to grapple with and learn how to deal with really difficult emotional challenges…so anything that helps with their resilience and coping skills, we think is really important. We want to let them know that we care about who they are as people. We care about their quality of life.”

What is it about petting a dog that seems to make such a difference? “Unconditional love is definitely a piece of it,” Laird said, but he also pointed to an emerging body of research that finds pet therapy has real benefits for human health. For example, a study published last year in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health found that simply playing and spending time with a trained pet therapy animal resulted in decreases in self-reported anxiety and loneliness in college students.

“Some research even talks about how dogs are able to find the person in a crowd who needs attention and may be suffering or in pain,” Laird said. “There’s something really beautiful about knowing dogs can find [that person] and offer healing.”

Benefits of human-animal interaction

Columbia University Medical Center is among a growing number of medical schools and teaching hospitals turning to furry, four-legged companions to bring moments of comfort and stress relief to students and hospital staff. Unlike animal-assisted therapy, in which trained therapy animals are incorporated into a patient’s treatment plan to help achieve particular health outcomes, programs such as the one at Columbia are typically aimed at providing a happy break from the hectic demands of studying and practicing medicine. Those breaks, however, can still be quite therapeutic, said Sandra Barker, PhD, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Medicine.

Barker noted that some of the center’s research shows that human-animal interaction can buffer the impact of stress. For example, one study of health care professionals found that stress-reducing effects can happen after just five minutes of interaction with a therapy dog.

“We suspect that they provide nonevaluative social support,” said Barker, who is also a professor of psychiatry. “You’re in a very demanding setting, and these dogs aren’t asking for anything. They’re just there to be loved.”

The center runs its own animal-assisted therapy program known as Dogs On Call, or DOC, which facilitates having a trained and certified therapy dog at the VCU Medical Center almost every day. In addition to visiting patients in the teaching hospital, the therapy dogs visit staff, who frequently request their own time with the dogs. In fact, the dogs have such an impact that DOC organizers make sure a therapy dog is available to staff during medical emergencies and crises. Barker noted that the participating therapy dogs and their handlers must adhere to strict guidelines to ensure patient safety.

Outside of the medical center, DOC dogs bring their brand of stress relief to VCU students during exam time. For medical students, in particular, the dogs visit the medical school library and student commons area during final exams to give students a relaxing break from the rigors of study.

“It’s easy to see the happiness that these dogs bring,” Barker said.

Library dog with “office hours”

To the north, at Harvard Medical School, it’s not unusual to hear the clinking of a dog collar and tags at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine as staff take Cooper, a 7-year-old shih-tzu, on a walk beside the shelves of books. A certified therapy dog, Cooper began his weekly library visits in 2011 with owner Loise Francisco, PhD, a research fellow in microbiology and immunobiology, as well as an instructor at the medical school. Francisco, who has had Cooper since he was a puppy, said he always had a calm demeanor and an affinity for people. As a trained therapy dog, he first began visiting Boston-area cancer centers, rehabilitation clinics, and elder-care facilities as part of the organization Caring Canines. But when Francisco read about a therapy dog who visits students at the Yale Law School library, she thought Cooper could offer similar stress-reducing benefits to Harvard medical students.

“When we park the car, he pops out and runs to the library,” Francisco said. “He runs right in and knows exactly where to go. Sometimes there are even people waiting for him. He’s well-greeted and well-loved.”

Cooper holds “office hours” at the library each Tuesday and Thursday. In fact, he was actually listed in the library’s digital card catalogue so students could “check him out” and spend time with him. But most medical students simply stop by the library office where Cooper stays for a visit. While many students want to play, some just want to sit and study with Cooper nearby, Francisco noted.

“Medical school students and residents are really stressed out,” she said. “But dogs don’t care how smart you are….They just smile and love you unconditionally, regardless.”

Ashley Sway, MA, access services manager at Countway Library of Medicine, said Cooper typically welcomes a constant stream of visitors. He even has a group of “regulars” who stop by every week.

“He just brings a smile to people’s faces,” she said. “When he’s not here, a lot of patrons get really sad. They expect to see him, and when he’s not here, it’s kind of a bummer.”

The launch of the Pet the Pooch program

At the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Heather Matthew, MSN, RN, CEN, clinical practice lead in the Emergency Department, noticed that when pet therapy dogs came to see patients, staff would always make an effort to visit the four-legged guests. Matthew had an American bulldog named Annabella who always gave her a sense of peace no matter how bad her day was, she noted.

“Then one day I said, ‘I wish I could bring Annabella to work,’ and I started saying that a lot,” Matthew said. “It just came to me one day—how amazing it would be to have dogs here just to play with the nurses.” She brought her self-described “crazy idea” to her director.

Although Annabella passed away in 2011, Matthew received the green light to launch the Pet the Pooch program in 2013. A partnership with the Philadelphia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Pet the Pooch has a two-fold mission: to bring the health benefits of animal interaction to hospital staff and to find homes for shelter animals. Today, vaccinated and temper-tested shelter dogs and cats visit the hospital’s Center for Nursing Renewal once a month for a couple of hours. Nurses, doctors, administrative staff, and medical residents come for a visit. On a busy day, the dogs and cats receive more than 100 visits, with a line of people waiting to get their turn. In addition, Pet the Pooch has facilitated more than a dozen pet adoptions, Matthew noted.

“This is a tremendous program,” she said. “If you have happier staff, hopefully you have happier patients, which leads to better outcomes and better results.”

Back at Columbia, Alissa Rogol, a first-year medical student at the university’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, is the owner of Bella, the little Havanese who regularly visits medical students at Bard Hall. A certified therapy dog since 2013, Bella especially loves working with young adults, said Rogol, who noted that Bella not only provides a mental break, but also offers medical students an opportunity to engage with one another on a more personal level.

“She gives students a chance to bond over something other than the next exam,” Rogol said. “I’m so happy to have Bella around. Sometimes I joke that she knows more about biology than I do.”

This article is reprinted from the March 2015 AAMC Reporter. For more information about the Reporter, visit www.aamc.org/reporter.

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