Use of therapy dogs found to raise patients’ spirits

Howard Greninger | Terre Haute Tribune-Star

When 11-year-old therapy dog Moe sees a red bandanna, he knows it’s time to go to work.

For the past three years, Moe has been certified through Therapy Dogs International to work in Terre Haute Regional and Union hospitals and in a Hamilton Center, Indiana, behavioral clinic.

“Moe wears the bandanna (with a TDI seal) when he goes to the hospital. It is similar to a service dog wearing a vest, to let people know the dog is working,” said dog owner Linda McQuiston, a registered nurse and assistant professor of nursing at Indiana State University.

“Moe can sense if someone is really stressed. In a group situation, he will pick out someone and sit with them and cuddle up into their lap or will put his head on their hands. If he senses you are not into that, he just moves on,” McQuiston said.

Therapy Dogs International, founded in 1976 in New Jersey, is a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registering therapy dogs and volunteer handlers to visit nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions. As of 2012, about 24,750 dog/handler teams are registered with TDI. Moe is the only certified TDI animal in Terre Haute actively visiting at this time, according to McQuiston.

The true benefit of a therapy dog is relieving a human’s stress. “There are studies that show therapy dogs decrease blood pressure and increase relaxation,” McQuiston said.

“Research shows (therapy dogs can temporarily) reduce cortisol levels,” an immunosuppressant associated with stress and pain, McQuiston said, referencing a 2015 study conducted by Pain Service and Palliative Care at the Meyer Children’s Hospital in Florence, Italy. Children in an experimental group with a dog present during a blood collection procedure had lower levels of cortisol than children without a dog present. Both groups had parents present during the procedure. Cortisol is a so-called stress hormone linked to many health issues.

Moe, a silver miniature poodle, visits hospitals one day a week, spending as little as 10 seconds to as much as 10 minutes with patients. Moe works for an hour to an hour and a half while in a hospital or clinic. On average, he sees 10 patients, but some days may only see five patients who want to spend the maximum time with Moe.

“Hospitals are not really your own environment. They take all your belongings and then stick you with needles,” McQuiston said. “To be able to see that we can calm people down is very rewarding, and you notice a difference in their demeanor. (Patients’) shoulders are not slumped down and they no longer seem withdrawn.”

McQuiston encourages her students to consider becoming therapy dog owners. “Unlike service dogs, you own therapy dogs. They are your dogs and live with you. I want students, and even recreational therapists I work with at the hospitals, to know there are alternatives to medicines and you don’t always have to give people drugs, but can use animals to relieve stress.”

With that in mind, Moe goes to work with McQuiston every day while the assistant professor is teaching on campus. Moe can be a stress reliever to the students during test weeks. “Many students will come and see Moe and say they need their ‘Moe fix,’” before taking a test, McQuiston said.

Relieving stress can be exhausting and even a therapy dog needs time off. “Moe can have a very stressful day, especially after a lot of activity in a group situation. So sometimes when he gets home, he goes under a chair and doesn’t want to be bothered,” McQuiston said. “He is 11 years old after all.”

McQuiston first realized Moe had the potential to be a therapy dog when he was 12 weeks old. She took Moe to visit a cousin who had cerebral palsy. Moe would stay with her cousin for an hour and help her exercise her hand. “He was never fussy and was very calm,” she said.

McQuiston later learned of Therapy Dogs International and decided Moe would be a good candidate. Now, she is hoping to train her 9-month old golden retriever named Indy to become a TDI-certified therapy dog. Indy, named after Indiana Jones as McQuiston is an avid fan of the movie series, is already “good citizen” certified, the first step toward becoming a therapy dog.

“I think therapy dogs are something that we as nurses can do to go above and beyond just working in clinics,” McQuiston said.

This is an Associated Press member exchange story.