Stress in Therapy Dogs

therapy dogs

Dogs, cats, and other animals are routinely used in therapy sessions in a variety of ways. Therapy dogs are used in what is known as animal assisted therapy in order to treat many different types of physical and mental illnesses. They also serve to alleviate stress in humans in social situations. While many studies have been conducted on how these therapy animals can be positive influences on humans there have been few, if any, studies on the how these therapy animals, including dogs, may experience stress of their own.

A new study performed through the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, investigated the stress levels of dogs used in a therapy setting and how the animals felt. The goal of the research is to determine how a low or stress free environment may be created for these animals. Lisa Maria Glenk from Messerli Research Institute’s Department of Comparative Medicine is a forerunner in animal perspective research. She works with dogs being used for animal assisted therapies. In cooperation with other researchers from the Karl Landsteiner Institute of Neurochemistry, Neuropharmacology, Neurorehabilitations and Pain Treatment in Mauer-Amstetten and the University of Vienna, Glenk studied not only the stress of these therapy dogs but also their quality of life.

The group of researchers would like to establish professional usage standards for these four-legged therapists in order to ensure the animals are not subjected to harsh treatments or become overly stressed by their co-therapy roles. Glenk and her team wish to create positive experiences and create guidelines to reduce or eliminate any negative consequences both physically and psychologically to these animals. Current research indicates that trained animals do not experience greater levels of stress during therapy sessions then they would normally experience during non-therapy or relaxation periods.

The studies were conducted with therapy dogs which were regularly used during group sessions in which two therapists and a number of people with drug addictions were present. Tests were performed by taking samples of the dogs’ saliva at several points both during the sessions and during the dogs’ leisure times. Cortisol levels in the dogs saliva was measured for all time periods. Cortisol levels in canine saliva are an indicator of stress levels. The results came back with the indication that the therapy dogs were not stressed during these co-therapy sessions. Additionally, a previous study showed that dogs that were allowed to operate without a leash during therapies were less stressed by the situation and tested with lower levels of cortisol. The unleashed dogs were more relaxed than those who were kept on a leash.

The study was captured on video as well and the visuals of the sessions appear to support the evidence of the cortisol level results. Stress levels appear to be contingent upon a number of factors such as whether the animal is leashed, whether or not they may move about the room freely, and whether they had access to water and could drink at any time. Stressed dogs display a number of symptoms such as hair loss, biting on a leash, panting, yawning, or shaking. The freedom of movement and the cortisol levels in the studied canines indicates that these animals in the study are not being subjected to stressful situations. However, Glenk does recommend that supervision of all therapy dogs remain in place in order to ensure that stress for the animals does not become a factor.

By Dee Mueller
on twitter @TuesdayDG

Phys Org
Vetmeduni Vienna
Science Daily

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