Let Your Rehab Therapy Practice Go to the Dogs: Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy

By:  Jennifer Heiligman, PT, MPT

August has been recognized as National Dog Month.  This observance was established in 2020 in an effort to acknowledge all the ways dogs make our lives better.  For good reason, dogs are the most commonly owned pets. There is scientific proof that having a dog in our life can decrease stress, make us happier and improve our overall outlook.   In observance of National Dog Month, we wanted to take the opportunity to recognize the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy, in which dogs play a huge role.

What is animal assisted therapy (AAT)? AAT is when animals, most commonly dogs, are used during goal directed treatment sessions.  The goal may be physical, social or emotional and the treatments are rendered by a healthcare professional, including a physical therapist, occupational therapist or a speech and language pathologist.  There is more and more evidence based research supporting the fact that AAT helps improve patient outcomes.

One study, “Can therapy dogs improve pain and satisfaction after total joint arthroplasty? A randomized controlled trial”, by Harper CM, et al. published in Clinical Orthopedics and Related Research. 2015;473:372, looked at two main questions.  First, do therapy dogs have an effect on patients’ perception of pain after total joint arthroplasty?  Second, do therapy dogs have an effect on patients’ satisfaction with their hospital stay after total joint arthroplasty?  The results of the study showed a significantly larger decrease in pain levels after physical therapy sessions for those patients where dogs assisted with the therapy.  In addition, they also reported significantly higher satisfaction scores related to their hospital stay.  The results of the study indicate that the use of therapy dogs had a positive effect on these patients related to decreased pain and increased satisfaction with their hospital stay.

Another study, “Dog-Assisted Therapies and Activities in Rehabilitation of Children with Cerebral Palsy and Physical and Mental Disabilities”, by Dilek Tunçay Elmacı and Sibel Cevizci published in Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015 May; 12(5): 5046–5060, investigated the effectiveness of dog assisted therapy in children with CP in helping them participate in health improving services.  The results of this study, just like the previous study cited, showed a positive association with using dog assisted therapy.  Dog assisted therapy was indeed a supportive method to help these children better participate in rehab treatment procedures.  The dogs helped to decrease the children’s stress and anxiety, in addition to promoting movement in the intended body regions.

Therapy dogs assist with many aspects of a person’s rehabilitation program.  These animals can help with improving motor skills.  They are specially trained to use their mouth and nose to encourage a patient to continue performing an activity or prompt a certain movement.  They can help with gait training.  When dogs walk they keep a steady cadence.  If a dog is walking next to a patient, that can help the patient keep in step with the dog to make their own walking more secure and stable.  Balance and endurance can also be improved with the incorporation of a therapy dog.  A patient can play a game of fetch with the dog which can help the patient improve their strength, hand eye coordination and balance when the patient is asked to maintain certain postures while throwing.  For example, they can work on unsupported sitting or for a more advanced patient, standing on one foot while throwing the ball.  When the patient has a willing playmate, like a dog, that may also extend the exercise routine which can help to improve the patient’s endurance.

If you are thinking of adding AAT to your practice, you will want to do your research.  You will need to decide if having a therapy dog on staff is right for your facility and patient population.  Keep in mind there is a difference between a therapy dog and a service dog.  Service dogs complete specialized training in order to assist their companion with certain tasks.  On the other hand, the American Kennel Club offers training and certifications to become a therapy dog.  The training is not as intense as needed to become a service dog.  The AKC recommends the best type of dog to become a therapy dog are those that are calm, obedient, friendly, healthy, vaccinated and it is helpful if they don’t shed a lot of hair.  You may have a staff member who already owns a dog that may fit that description.  Imagine how happy that staff member will be when they can bring their dog to work with them.

A dog can be a non-judgemental, dependable and energetic addition to any rehab therapy session.  They can be the motivation a patient may need to improve participation in their treatments.  Dogs can lift a patient’s spirit, help decrease their perception of pain and improve their overall outcomes.  In celebration of National Dog Month, we would like to thank all those wagging tails and wet noses that have helped our therapy patients meet their goals.