We all have heard of the many benefits therapy dogs bring to people – from lowering stress to helping with depression and providing assistance to those afflicted by conditions like cancer. But do these hero dogs actually enjoy what they are doing?
The answer is yes! What may seem like a stressful job, is actually enjoyable to therapy dogs. A recent study examined 26 therapy dogs paired with children who had cancer at five children’s hospitals.
“What made this study unique was that it was multisite—it took place in five different hospitals across the country—and the fact that we visited over a hundred patients and 26 dogs participated, making it the largest of its kind in this field,” Amy McCullough, who lead the study and is also the national director of research and therapy at American Humane, an animal welfare organization, told National Geographic.
To reach this conclusion, the team took swabs of saliva from the dog – both at home and during their hospital visits. They were looking to see if there was an increase in cortisol levels, a hormone that gets elevated when stress occurs. They found that the were no differences in cortisol levels, concluding the dogs were not particularly stressed while working.
The team also videotaped encounters between therapy dogs and cancer patients to see if the pups displayed any behaviors indicating they were stressed out. Researchers measured three actions: friendly behavior, like play bowing or approaching the person; moderate stress signals, such as licking lips and high-stress indicators like crying.
They found that dogs were more relaxed with certain activities, like when children played with the dog’s toy or spoke to the canine. Other activities, like brushing the dog wasn’t as pleasant for the animal.
“It’s fair to say that some activities are more fun for the dog,” McCullough told the outlet, adding, “This is good information for handlers—they can lean toward the activities that they think their dog would enjoy.”