New research at the University of Calgary is looking at how living with a dog helps treat patients with chronic pain. The study is called Human-Animal Pain Interaction (HAPI) and so far has involved telephone surveys of people suffering from chronic pain in Alberta.
“There’s a lot of good science that’s published out there about the benefits of dog therapy or service dogs or about living with a dog, but not in the chronic pain population,” said Eloise Carr, HAPI research team lead with the U of C’s faculty of nursing.
Eighteen months of research led to a pilot study that revealed dogs give people a reason to get out of the house and socialize. In addition, the surveys suggest the animals can help with the depression often associated with chronic pain.
“We had profound stories,” Carr said. “We had a gentleman who had been suicidal and tried to take his own life three times. And it was on the third attempt he stopped himself and said, ‘Who would look after my dog?’
“When you hear that, you realize just how terrible chronic pain can be, but also how powerful their relationship–their bond with their dog can be.”
The HAPI research also suggests a dog can be a distraction and reduce a patient’s anxiety as they handle the animal.
Carr added one of the greatest benefits with chronic pain patients is that a dog can act as a listener.
“People with chronic pain often don’t have that social network,” she said. “Their friends and family have sometimes left them and they are on their own. They’re not at work, often, and as one person said to me,’The dog gives me permission to cry.’ There’s no judgment. Talk to the dog, and that empathy or that feeling and the connection they have is really powerful.”
Pamela Pyle has been involved with the HAPI study since it started a year-and-a-half ago. She suffers from chronic pain as a result of a motorcycle crash over 25 years ago that happened near Canmore. Pyle has a service dog to help her get around but Willow, her two-year-old Shepherd-Lab cross, also helps ease her pain.
“I can feel my pain coming down.”
“It doesn’t drop down to a zero or a five, but it does come down. It brings relief.”
Pyle said having Willow around her is like taking medicine.
“I think it’s spectacular. If I am able to reduce my medication, I am very happy to do so.”
“I truly believe she knows when I’m having a bad day. And if I’m feeling really bad I can pet her and she doesn’t move a muscle she will allow me to pet her and then you’re doing something and you’re not thinking about the pain.”
Carr said there’s no easy fix for people with chronic pain. Drugs are available, but she said people ultimately want to be able to self-manage their pain with less medication.
“What better than having a dog that’s actually therapeutic for that?” Carr said.
The team of 15 researchers and patients at the University of Calgary, University of Alberta and University of Lethbridge plan to expand the study outside of the province this year.