Working like a dog
Contributor Dorisa Meng
The life of a university student often alternates between stressful projects and exams with brief interludes of bliss, known as “Dog Therapy.” I always perk up whenever I hear the sounds of dogs barking in the distance, as do most other people. The idea of a warm and furry friend who won’t interrogate you about summer plans or discuss the questions on a difficult midterm can make all the difference during a stressful period of your life. However, what remains unclear is how much therapy dogs truly enjoy their job.
Dog therapy and other forms of animal therapy fall under the general category of Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI). This category can then be broken down into Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), which requires official documentation and supervision from trained professionals, and Animal-Assisted Activity (AAA), which is more spontaneous with volunteers bringing animals to visit the population not necessarily with the intent of therapy.
Before you think to enroll your own house pet as a therapy animal, note that while your pet may love cuddling with you and your family members, that does not mean they are necessarily suitable for the role of a therapy animal. Animals dogs require special training and must undergo temperament evaluations to be deemed qualified for AAI.
Therapy dogs have long been used as therapeutic alternatives for many demographics such as patients with heart failure, juvenile homes, hospice and more. Studies have shown human-animal interaction to provide psychological benefits such as increased levels of oxytocin secretion, improved social functioning as well as decreased anxiety. Past research also points towards mutual positive effects in AAI for both humans and canines. For example, within 15 minutes of gentle stroking, shelter dogs will see a significant decrease in cortisol levels and behaviour changes signalling a calming effect.
Yet behind the scenes of the therapy dog world, there are unspoken issues for our four legged friends. Some handlers have openly admitted to restricting water access for the dogs during long visits to minimize bathroom breaks. Therapy animals are also required to work in the presence of a variety of uncomfortable stimuli, such as wheelchairs, sudden noise, and high temperatures.
Certain studies also suggest that many service animals are placed into situations where they cannot avoid undesirable social interaction, which can consequently have a negative impact on their physical and mental well-being. Over evolutionary time, dogs have been bred to recognize family and guard against unfamiliar individuals, thus forced physical interactions with strangers in unfamiliar environments may elicit discomfort.
While their handlers are obligated to be attuned to their discomfort, stress perception varies substantially between animal handlers. Ultimately, more research is necessary and the current consensus is that the psychological and hormonal benefits of AAI for human health outweigh the costs.
At the end of the day, therapy dogs aren’t given a feedback survey to fill out on their experiences at work. Thus, it is our job to ensure their animal welfare and ethical treatment. So please keep the following in mind the next time you see dogs or other animals brought onto campus or other locations for therapy.
Try and pay attention to the environment for details such as, adequate access to water, appropriate room temperature and the removal of challenging stimuli (e.g. sudden noise). Listen attentively to the animal handler for any boundaries they set for the therapy dogs. If in doubt, ask questions about how to interact with the dog before initiating actual contact. Be aware of behavioural signals that may potentially indicate a stressful environment for the dog. Also, this goes without saying, respect the dog as you would a friend or companion.
Finally, enjoy the presence man’s best friend because everyone deserves a little love at the end of a ‘ruff’ day.