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The powerful impact of Animal-Assisted Therapy through distraction, pain relief, or a smile
Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy for cancer patients
The work day begins when Magnum's therapy-designated vest is put on; he knows it is time for work once he sees his vest, where he "races around the house [because] he's so excited going to therapy." Today, Magnum encounters a visitor to the hospital, a man with Cerebral Palsy, who approaches the Great Dane and pets Magnum with his fists.
Magnum is remarkably intuitive, which aids in his superior abilities as a therapy dog. He is gentle with his leans (Great Danes tend to lean), and he will not lean on children. Magnum is reserved, where people often think he is not enjoying his time with the patients; however, Magnum's intentions are clear: once the petting ceases, Magnum will circle and nudge the patient's hand signaling his desire to be petted. "Magnum understands what his job is and he's very excited about it," observes Selz. Magnum, like most dogs, enjoys having a job, and knowing he has a purpose. Selz believes that behavioral issues in dogs can be worked through if they are given a purpose.
Magnum's presence has had resounding positive patient feedback, often getting numerous patient requests, as he is extremely popular among not only patients, but the hospital staff. The team will make time for the administration offices, so the staff can also have a few minutes with Magnum. From time to time, the doctors will wrestle with Magnum for a few minutes.
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is widely used to aid in the healing process for patients, particularly cancer patients, where the interaction works to relieve stress, thereby enhancing healing by conventional medicine. AAT is a part of a comprehensive Complimentary Therapies program offered to cancer patients by the Harrison Medical Center, located in Western Washington. Selz realized Magnum's aptitude for pet therapy when she was attempting to socialize him by bringing him onto the ferry on her commute. She noticed Magnum's calmness and how people were just "drawn to him." Selz began her work with Magnum in December 2007.
In order to become certified with the Delta Society (now, Pet Partners as of 2012), a non-profit organization whose mission is advancing human overall well-being through interactions with animals, Selz took an eight-hour handler's class, detailing what was expected of both the dog and the handler. A written test is given, as well as a practical exam, where both dog and handler had to pass in order to become certified. The practical test for the dog includes basic obedience, how the handler reacts to the dog, and how the dog handles stressful situations.
As AAT is a widely accepted means of the healing process in cancer patients, in 2010, the American Humane Association (AHA), the nation's voice in protecting children and animals, was awarded several grants by the Pfizer Foundation and Zoetis, a global animal health company devoted to discovering and developing portfolio of animal health medicines and vaccines. The partnership yielded a study on the impact of AAT on children diagnosed with cancer and their families. As stated by the AHA, goals of the study were to "promote innovation, evidence-based research, practice improvements, and knowledge advancement to further the field of research on human-animal interactions and the treatment of cancer in children." Additional goals included the cultivation of improved communication among human and animal medical and research professionals, as well as better understanding the benefits of AAT in pediatric oncology treatment.
The first phase of The Canines and Childhood Cancer (CCC) research project were released, citing various studies of the effects the therapy dog had on the patient; essential benefits included the motivation of active participation in treatment, providing a helpful distraction, and the elevation of mood, as evidenced through Magnum's interaction with adult cancer patients.
According to the AHA, the "motivation to stay optimistic" was an important benefit of the visits with therapy dogs, where half of the 16 parents of children with cancer in the study sample had reported an improvement in treatment compliance. The "motivation to continue with hospitalization" increased after the visit with the therapy dog. The increased motivation to actively participate in the treatment/therapeutic process resulted in patients having the "ability to see beyond their current situation as a cancer patient." The excitement and anticipation over the next visit with the therapy dog illustrated the patient's optimism for future events, something that is difficult when living with a chronic or terminal illness.
In a study conducted with adults, compared to patients receiving visits with a "friendly human" or a session of quiet reading, the patients who visited with a therapy dog and his/her handler "looked forward to similar future sessions and remember the visit after returning home from the hospital," in addition to a high incident of telling their friends about the interaction.
A useful benefit of the therapy dog interaction is providing a helpful distraction, particularly from pain, worry, anxiety and unhappiness. Rather than focusing only on the unpleasant situation, the child is given the opportunity to interact with the therapy dog who provides joy and comfort. 61% of pediatric cardiology patients (and 40% of their parents) claimed the dogs' presence as a "pleasant distraction from the reality of hospitalization." The therapy dog distracts the child patients from their pain perception, which increased the comfort level throughout the necessary treatment process. The distraction from the unpleasant and painful experience of treatment eases the treatment process, yielding a less stressful, more successful treatment session. The interaction with the therapy dog may have caused the release of endorphins (generating positive feelings) and lymphocytes (which enhances the immune system), significantly decreasing the pain level, therefore easing the "pain and discomfort commonly experienced by pediatric patients."
Selz's philosophy is also of distraction. The interaction with Magnum allows the patient to momentarily forget that they are sick and in the hospital, being "transported to a different place." Selz begins by bringing Magnum into the room and to the side of the patient's bed. Magnum then leans over so that the patient can reach out to him. According to Selz, Magnum is her "in" in getting the patient to openly talk about their home, diverting them away from being in the hospital. Selz visits with the patients and perhaps brings a smile to their faces.
A trip to the Oncology wing illustrated evidence of the correlation between the patient/therapy dog interaction, and its effect of pain relief. Selz and Magnum approached a room with two patients. The first woman was too sick for visitors, but the second woman was missing her three dogs at home; as sick as she was, she wanted that interaction with Magnum. She began to pet Magnum, when suddenly, he climbed in bed with her, something he had never done before, setting off the nurse's call button! Somehow, Magnum sensed that climbing into the bed was exactly what the patient needed; she felt better and no longer felt nauseous.
The AHA continues, the elevation of mood is a great benefit, as patients diagnosed with chronic or terminal illness have a great risk of experiencing depression, especially as the disease/treatment progresses. The physical disability and/or chronic illness and pain increase the risk for depression regardless of the gender or age of the patient. Children self-reported their mood as pleasurable after their interaction with the therapy dog, many creating drawings of the therapy dogs whom they visited with. AHA also cites a study of the effects of patients participating in AAT and those participating in play therapy (33% were hospitalized for hematology/oncology issues). The children were happy at the end of both types of therapy session, but the children who participated in AAT were rated as happier than the children participating in the play therapy group.
Selz's favorite story of Magnum helping a patient is of an elderly woman who merely wanted to learn about Magnum. The woman was resting as Selz had knocked on her door, asking if she would like a visit. Selz ventured further into the room, as the woman replied, "Not today." Then the woman saw Magnum; she didn't want to pet him, but she did want to learn about him. Within ten minutes, the woman was sitting up, had more color, and was more animated.
AAT is a mammoth commitment, physically and emotionally. The team comes once a week for about an hour and a half; Magnum's limit is two hours, as it is extremely exhausting mentally, and physically, as he is standing during the sessions. The average visit for each patient is between five to ten minutes. The team develops relationships with patients, such as those in hospices and nursing homes; dogs can sense death and illness, where death is devastating to both dog and handler. However, Selz always feels positive during and after her sessions, knowing she was able to help people. When Magnum retires from pet therapy, he will continue his work with the Reading with Rover program, which encourages children with reading difficulties, hesitant to read aloud to peers, to read stories to dogs, since "' the dog never judges the child's reading ability." Selz feels that "giving dogs a job is a good thing to do," as it is rewarding for everyone involved.
Selz and Magnum share an extremely strong bond, in part to their work as an AAT team. Magnum was the reason behind the opportunities Selz seized, and people she had met; all of which she otherwise wouldn't have. For example, Selz had volunteered with the National Animal Assisted Crisis Response, assisting after the Alabama school shooting in February of 2010; if it had not been for Magnum, Selz would never had trained to do crisis work.
Selz advises in regards to the first step in becoming an AAT team, "You have to know your dog's temperament," where the crucial step is socialization. Selz suggests you take your dog everywhere you can, places with lots of people, lots of sounds, where everything is new and different, such as into the city with noise, or on the ferry, so that "nothing is new for them." The purpose is so they can learn to handle the stress, where the goal is for the dog to be comfortable in all settings. This also teaches the handler how to react; if the handler isn't worried, the dog will not be worried.
There are dogs who have the temperament to become a certified therapy dog; there are dogs who have the innate serenity, as Magnum, where people were naturally drawn to him. Another dog people were naturally drawn to was Leo, one of the fifty dogs found on former NFL quarterback Michael Vick's property. Despite his tragic beginnings, Leo was cheerful and affectionate, working as a therapy dog, sharing his love with cancer patients and the elderly at a local hospital. As described by Marthina McClay, his foster-mom and Founder of Our Pack, Inc., a Pit Bull rescue group based in the South San Francisco Bay area, Leo "was so magnetic' He has this way of romancing you with those brown eyes of his'" With his sweet demeanor and "dreamy gazes," Leo served as the consummate "ambassador for all canines, not just Pit Bulls." Sadly, Leo passed in 2011 from a severe seizure disorder. Leo spent his life making the lives of others better, whether showing children they can show "love and compassion towards others regardless of how life has treated you," or bringing comfort and smiles to patients at the hospital. The effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy are undeniably powerful in enhancing the treatment of cancer patients, whether through distraction, pain relief, or a smile.
To read the Canines and Childhood Cancer (CCC) Comprehensive Literary Review, visit:
Louisa Lew, Contributing Writer: Louisa Lew graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s Degree in the Liberal Arts, double majoring in Political Science and Film. She is currently a Freelance Copy Editor and Writer, living in Seattle with her two dogs. (more...)