The owner of Murphy, a springer spaniel, always knew her dog had a positive impact at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital (RUH) – now she has the research to back it up.
“As soon as I enter the emergency room, you can almost feel the whole place breathe a sigh of relief,” said Jane Smith, a volunteer therapy dog handler with St. John’s Ambulance.
In 2016, she and Murphy had 124 interactions with emergency department patients, on average spending roughly 10 minutes with each person. Participants were required to clean their hands before and after touching Murphy.
Jane and Murphy were joined by a research assistant who helped record patient responses.
Eighty per cent of participants expressed feelings of happiness during the visit, saying they felt calmer after the encounter.
Another benefit, according to study co-lead Colleen Dell, is that patients had a distraction in the “hectic” emergency setting.
“Now we’ll look at measuring specifically for pain, and that’s looking at both physical pain and emotional pain,” Dell said.
With lengthy emergency room wait times affecting hospitals across Canada, Dell said therapy dogs can help make a long wait go by faster.
“We need to do things differently. If things were working, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Dell said.
The group has already received a research grant from the Royal University Hospital Foundation to further understand the impact of therapy dogs at RUH.
Future research will look at physical indicators underlying positive patient responses, including heart rate, blood pressure and possibly cortisol levels, according to Dr. James Stempien, study co-lead and provincial head of emergency medicine with the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
“We will be looking at patients both pre- and post-exposure to the therapy dog and try to see what sort of physiological benefits are there,” Stempien said.
RUH’s emergency department is the first in Canada to welcome therapy dogs for patients. Up to six therapy dogs now visit throughout the week.