Ask Sue Halpern Anything: Responding To A Therapy Dog

The author explains how she and her therapy dog Pransky have been received while working at a local nursing home (with one awesome anecdote):

John Ensminger recently went through some new research into the effectiveness of therapy dogs, including what the experience is like for the dog:

[My dog] Chloe and I have been a therapy dog team for nearly five years.  Indeed there can be stress for the dog. In a visit to a cerebral palsy facility, one child locked a hand onto Chloe’s back.  I kept her calm while two attendants gradually unlocked the vice grip of fingers. Fran Breitkopf encountered a similar situation in a memory care unit:

“Although [my dog] Casey loved to visit people he was not able to sustain visits to deep dementia sections of Golden Hill. It exhausted him and he was only able to deal with the confusion that he felt for a short time.  I did have to pry a woman away from Casey in one of his visits to that section. She grabbed him and hugged him too hard. His eyes pleaded for help and we did have a nurse come in to help us. He was okay after that, not reluctant. When we left the facility, Casey would fall into a deep sleep by the time we got down the driveway to the main road, probably just 800 to 1,000 feet.  I ended up not taking him to that section after a time. On the other hand he loved going to Ten Broeck Elder Care Facility and was good for at least an hour. He just wanted to deliver kisses and sat on everyone’s laps and gave them many. He did not want to sit on laps of people who had wet themselves. I always thought he didn’t want anyone to think it was he who had peed.”

Nevertheless, negative incidents are rare and [researcher Dr. Dawn A.] Marcus describes a study in which visits to humans “resulted in significant positive changes (P≤0.01) in endorphin, oxytocin, prolactin, phenyl acetic acid, and dopamine levels in dogs.”  Corstisol levels have been shown to rise in dogs, however, indicating that there is a “need to limit visit frequency.”  Although my experience with Chloe has not been monitored for chemical changes in either of us, I do believe that the stress level varies with the assignment and that some assignments are actually fun for the dog.

Mental Floss has put together a gallery of therapy dogs in action. Sue’s new book, A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher, comes out tomorrow. Our Ask Anything archive is here.