Canines and childhood cancer study hopes to quantify the value of AAT

“Therapy dogs” are becoming part of the American lexicon. But despite their growing popularity, and the emergence of animal assisted therapy (AAT) as a bona-fide field of study and intervention, to-date, few studies have quantified AAT’s value.

The American Humane Association (AHA) hopes to change that. 

AHA has begun a rigorous process to study the psychological and physical effects of canines on children with cancer and their families. It is also studying the impact of those visits on the dogs themselves.

“In talking with different hospitals, I’ve noticed the varied perspectives about AAT, including who should have access to it, when, how, and more,” Amy McCullough, PhD and National Director, Humane Research and Therapy, at AHA told NEWStat.

“Our hope, with this clinical study, is to empirically prove how beneficial AAT is to cancer patients and their families, so that more hospitals will want to include AAT in their treatment plans.”

The clinical trial, which began mid-2014 with rolling start dates, has enrolled 56 participants to-date. The study will conclude at the end of 2015, and findings will be published 2016.

The study is being conducted at five hospitals across the United States. It is testing three populations both physiologically and psychologically in varying degrees: the children, the families, and the dogs involved in the interactions.

Children are being monitored for blood pressure, pulse, and psychological and health-related quality of life issues. Their families are being monitored psychologically.

The dogs involved in the interactions are being monitored both physiologically via cortisol levels, and behaviorally, via videotaped sessions that are analyzed.

The dogs’ handlers are also assessing the canines using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ) developed by the University of Pennsylvania to assess canine temperament and behavior. (It is available free of charge to dog owners and professionals.)

“It’s too early to predict the outcome,” McCullough said. “But we have tested 250 cortisol levels on dogs and so far, the results are positive. We aren’t seeing any significant changes in those levels before and after the interactions.”

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