Maybe it's the smile or the wagging tail.
“Everybody loves their pets. When you're in the hospital, you're taken away from your home, your family, and your pets,” Betsy Aker, a dog therapy volunteer at the University of Colorado Hospital, Anschutz Medical Campus, said.
Betsy and Dave Aker – along with their therapy dogs Jiggs and Norte – have a very important task.
“People are not here because they’re having their best day. And yet when they see the dog, a big smile comes across their face, their body shifts,” Betsy said.
Walk behind them down a hallway and this is what you’ll see – wagging tales, smiles, and happiness. Even if it’s just for a moment.
“We find this very meaningful for us. It brings us a lot of joy, and it's a two way street,” Dave Aker said.
While the idea of using dogs for therapy is not new, a recent study confirms that emergency department patients who have a 10-minute visit with a therapy dog see significant benefits.
“There was a decrease in pain, a decrease in anxiety, a decrease in depression, and an increase in wellbeing,” Dr. Colleen Dell, a professor and the research chair in One Health & Wellness at the Department of Sociology and School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, said. She was one of the authors of the study.
“There is no cost to this intervention. These are people from the community who want to visit with their dogs,” she said.
And the happiness dogs bring can stick around for a while, too.
“We found that there was an improvement in pain, anxiety, and depression from before the intervention to immediately after and that was maintained 20 minutes after as well. So there’s a period of time where people's pain and anxiety and depression and their overall well-being is improved with interacting with a therapy dog,” Susan Tupper, a strategy consultant for pain quality improvement and research with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said. She was also part of the study.
“Most people, they think pain, they think medications. And absolutely our study supports the role of therapy dogs as an intervention for pain management,” she said.
Tupper considers it one more tool in the toolbox.
“In the emergency room, they are utilized to go in and see patients,” Dr. Erin Riggle, a pulmonary critical care physician at Littleton Adventist Hospital, said.
Dr. Riggle works at a hospital where dogs and volunteers – like Cleo and Suzanne – roam the building to help comfort patients.
“She gives back to the patients but yet again she's a happy camper that she's able to sit by them, be with them,” Suzanne Spotts, a volunteer who brings her dog Cleo in, said.
Dr. Riggle sees firsthand how a dog’s presence reduces pain.
“Certainly medications can do it but we’re always trying to avoid medications. We think that lights in the room can decrease agitation, giving light during the day, dark at night time, soothing music, channels that show calming ocean waves. Things like that have also been shown to achieve some of the goals that the pets do,” Dr. Riggle said.
Next time you’re experiencing pain, she says to consider additional options with your doctor.
“If there's any way to treat pain, anxiety, agitation in the elderly people, with anything that's non-medication, we always look for things like that,” Dr. Riggle said. “The dogs just brighten anyone's day.”