Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Therapy dog visits are great for patients, but they are just as important for morale for doctors, nurses, health care providers, and staff.
Long work hours, excessive stress, compassion fatigue, burn-out, and even secondary trauma, are common problems that health care providers and staff experience. This high-stress level can lead to high job turnover, lackadaisical work habits, or even mistreatment of patients.
Add to this, a shortage of qualified nursing staff, and several institutions are recognizing a need to do something to improve the working environment. Having frequent exposure to visiting or resident dogs increases morale, aids recruitment and retention of qualified staff, and creates protective factors against the above-mentioned issues.
In most cases, with the dog-handler teams were volunteers, these improvements were done at no cost to the institution. Rossetti, et al., published in The Journal of Psychosocial Nursing the results of her study, as well as other researchers on the same topic, on the positive impact on nurses and staff of pet-assisted therapy.
"Animals have long been associated with positive effects on patients in a variety of health care settings. When animals were first introduced in health care, they were usually brought in for visits and used in a social setting. Currently, animals are included in treatment programming and are part of the multidisciplinary care provided to patients."
Rosetti cites the work of other researchers such as Barba who reported that nursing staff in acute care settings had an overwhelming interest in, positive response to, and a more optimistic attitude after animal-assisted therapy was used with patients. Unexpectedly, benefits to staff morale were also noted. Other researchers mentioned by Rosetti were Cole and Gawlinski and Filan and Llewellyn-Jones who also noted positive responses from nursing staff when animal-assisted therapy was used with patients in intensive care units and nursing home dementia units, respectively. In a 2004 study, Bouchard, Landry, Belles-Isles, and Gagnon reported nursing staff satisfaction to implementation of a special care animal-assisted therapy program with hospitalized children with cancer.
Rossetti’s own studies corroborated the same significant changes in the workplace due to interaction with the animals and animal-assisted activities. These results were more dramatic and longer-lasting than other forms of training or expensive interventions. Rossetti discusses her own results and those of other researchers:
"Carmack and Fila (1989) identified emotional, physical, and physiological benefits to the nursing staff involved in an animal-assisted therapy program. Comments from staff indicated positive feelings and an atmosphere of teamwork and reduced stress. Gagnon et al. (2004) noted that nurses saw themselves as more cheerful and joyful, more motivated, and more positive because they used animal-assisted therapy and that using animal-assisted therapy with patients facilitated their work and raised their spirits.
The Human-Animal Bond Program at Tripler Army Medical Center
The Human-Animal Bond (HAB) Program at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu is one of the older programs and has been running for over 20 years. Volunteer handler teams in this program are also American Red Cross Volunteers. I was both a participant, as a dog-handler, as well as on the Human-Animal Bond Program Board. Writing in the US Army Medical Department Journal, Col. Perry Chumley described the multiple benefits of Tripler’s HAB Program to patients and staff:
"The main purpose of this program involves bringing smiles to the patients, family members, and hospital staff. In doing so, patients focus on the animals, which may help alleviate their fear, anxiety, or pain. Often, the hospital staff reports an increase in social interaction with the patients associated with animal visitation programs. "
When I was working with the HAB program, I had a wonderful Therapy Dog, Oscar, a rescue who had quite a rough past. But soldiers would just open up and cuddle with him, even with all his scars and missing teeth.
It is amazing how much joy even a short visit with a therapy dog can bring.
And when the staff gets to interact for a few moments with a sweet dog, it can go a long way to lifting their spirits, which makes any healing environment more effective.
Below is a short film I made about the Human-Animal Bond program at Tripler Army Medical Center.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection