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Study shows therapy dogs help calm people in ERs

The study showed everyone in the ER gets a boost from a visit with a therapy dog.
St. John Ambulance's pet therapy team.

SASKATOON — A recent study by the University of Saskatchewan Office of One Health & Wellness Ph.D. student Alexandria Pavelich found that therapy dogs are a source of happiness and calm for people in emergency rooms across Canada.

The increase in patients suffering from complex mental health issues has led to chaos and unprecedented staff burnout. Therapy dogs are a valuable resource that any hospital can tap into. Pavelich’s ongoing study has examined how therapy dogs can benefit people who arrive at the ER for self-identified mental health concerns, including substance use and suicidal ideation.

Pavelich found that everyone in the ER, including staff, receives a boost from a visit with a therapy dog. Mental Health Research Canada and the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation jointly fund her research. She will share preliminary findings from her research into the role therapy dogs can play in the ER as a featured speaker at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (Congress 2023) from May 27 to June 2 at York University in Toronto.

Pavelich accompanies each volunteer handler-dog team from the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program as an observer, working with Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital staff to identify mental health patients who may benefit from a visit. According to Pavelich, dogs improve the atmosphere in the ER and connect with people, giving them a sense of joy and happiness so that everybody can relax.

The therapy dogs also distract patients, lifting their moods and getting them to talk. Mental health patients who may be in drug withdrawal, actively experiencing suicide ideation, or highly anxious and agitated often shake, cry, or stare at their feet. They are not mentally in a good space while waiting to be seen. However, when they begin to interact with a therapy dog, they smile and sometimes laugh and suddenly become “super chatty.”

Therapy dogs provide love and support and help people to open up. According to reports from hospital staff, the visits save them time because patients are already settled and eager to continue talking by the time they’re seen. Pavelich aims to validate the science behind the complementary use of therapy dogs in hospitals and further demonstrate their value.

Pavelich’s study was recently extended by a $100,000 Canadian Graduate Scholarships-Doctoral program grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to investigate the benefits for mental health patients more closely. She said the overall message is loud and clear – these dogs are special, and they want jobs. Animal-assisted interventions are increasingly being implemented in many institutional settings globally, including jails, universities, healing centers, and therapeutic encounters with therapists and social workers.

“Therapy dogs aren’t the magic bullet to solve everyone’s problems, but they’re complementing current treatment programs,” she added. Pavelich stressed that it’s time for people to start recognizing how integral the bonds between people and dogs can be. She added that the One Health research team she is a part of is hoping there will continue to be changes to institutional guidelines better to integrate findings from studies such as this one.

“If you’re in the ER and it’s chaotic and you know you’ll be waiting for hours to see someone, and we know a visit from a therapy dog could help to relax you, it’s such a low risk, why aren’t more hospitals doing it?” Pavelich asked.

Congress 2023, sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences in partnership with York University, is Canada’s largest academic gathering and one of the most comprehensive in the world. The event focuses on reckoning with the past and reimagining the future to inspire

Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences in partnership with York University, Congress 2023 is sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Universities Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Mitacs, SAGE Publishing, and University Affairs.

Registration – which includes over 200 keynote and open Congress sessions, with a virtual attendance option for many presentations – is $55. Visit to register for a community pass and access the program of events open to the public.