The biological reason therapy dogs help us feel better

Ah, dogs. As pets, they keep us company when we feel lonely, comfort us when we are down, and make us laugh when we’re bored. 

For dog lovers, greeting your dog after work, or getting to pet a stranger’s dog in the park, can turn a bad day around. For people living with chronic illness and disability, having a therapy or service dog is life-changing.

These fluffy little friends are known as man’s best friend for a reason, and now we have another reason to add to the list. 

A recent study from the journal PLOS One, published on March 9, found that emergency room patients felt less pain after a visit from a therapy dog. 

Even a 10-minute visit was enough for patients to feel a significant difference. 

The researchers tested 198 emergency room patients, including control groups that didn’t get a doggie visit. 

They were all asked to report their levels of pain, depression, anxiety and wellbeing before and after a 10-minute visit from a St. John’s Ambulance dog and their handler. 

The patients reported a significant reduction in pain, symptoms of depression and anxiety and overall wellbeing. 

A dog a day keeps the anxiety at bay

Why did this happen? 

Well, interacting with a therapy dog “may alleviate pain perception by serving as a distraction from symptoms as well as influence perceptions of pain intensity,” wrote lead researcher Ben Carey. 

In other words, a visit from a therapy dog may not actually change the source of the pain, but change our perception of it since we are calmer and happier than before. This means patients may rate the pain as less intense, even if – biologically – the pain didn’t lessen.

This was the conclusion of Elisa J. Soba and colleagues, who found that children recovering from surgery were comforted by these canine visits and had lower perceptions of pain. 

It is easy to understand why a visit from a happy, cuddly dog can make you feel tonnes better when you’re poorly in hospital, but there’s a scientific reason for it, too. Other research has found that petting dogs reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, while we experience a surge in the feel-good neurochemical oxytocin.  

The idea of using dogs as therapy has been around for over four decades and was pioneered by people like Lesley Scott-Ordish who developed the idea of taking pets into care homes. 

These days, charities like Therapy Dogs Nationwide bring Animal-Assisted Therapies to people who need it. 

Volunteers take their own dogs into different social settings – so not just hospitals but also hospices, schools, care homes and even prisons, to provide comfort, distraction, and stimulation.

The charity says their visits has “improved communication in care home residents and patients by evoking memories and stimulating conversation.” They also saw that their dogs provide a calming environment for children with autism. 

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