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Saskatoon researcher: Dogs ease stress in ERs

Hospitals could use dogs to assist patients and alleviate burnout among staff grappling with the chaos inherent to their work.

SASKATOON — Alexandria Pavelich, a post-graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan, has witnessed the positive impact of service dogs in helping veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from their involvement in conflicts.

Inspired by these results, she embarked on a research project to explore how dogs could assist patients and staff in hospital emergency rooms. Pavelich observed the interaction between animals and humans for nearly two months to uncover potential benefits.

"Our research at the University of Saskatchewan's Health and Wellness Office has consistently focused on the advantages of human-dog relationships. Specifically, I examined how service dogs, distinct from therapy dogs, aided veterans with PTSD and suicidal tendencies," shared Pavelich with SASKTODAY.

Previous studies conducted by Pavelich's team delved into how therapy dogs supported patients with pain. The current research on dogs in emergency rooms extends their previous work, investigating the broader impact of therapy dogs on mental health while individuals are in the ER.

Data collection for Pavelich's study commenced on April 20, during which she dedicated over 50 hours to observing how dogs interacted with and assisted patients, doctors and other medical staff.

She conducted interviews with more than 30 patients as part of her research. St. John Ambulance, an organization specializing in first aid training and medical assistance, collaborated with Pavelich by providing access to their therapy dog program.

St. John Ambulance's volunteer dog program previously proved beneficial when assisting individuals who felt uneasy at the Saskatchewan Health Authority's COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Prairieland Park, where needle administration occurred almost two years ago.

The results of Pavelich's study demonstrated that therapy dogs play a significant role in reducing stress levels, promoting calmness, and providing a source of joy in emergency rooms. Hospitals can leverage this resource to assist patients and alleviate burnout among staff grappling with the chaos inherent to their work.

"During our study, we acknowledged that using therapy dogs complements existing hospital practices. It offers a different approach than what is already being done to aid patients," stated Pavelich.

"This holds particular value, especially when patients must endure extended waiting times in the emergency room. Drawing from my prior research on mental health, especially about veterans with PTSD."

Pavelich emphasized that individuals coping with PTSD commonly attend therapy sessions, adhere to prescribed medication regimens, and explore other strategies to manage their condition. However, the presence of a dog companion offers a distinct experience that imparts a sense of significance and provides non-judgmental support.

"There is an intangible connection that dogs seem to establish with people. They make individuals feel valued and impart a sense of purpose, offering an alternative approach to mental health," expressed Pavelich.

"For instance, when someone suffering from severe anxiety, as observed in many cases of panic attacks within emergency rooms, interacts with a dog—even for a few minutes—their stress hormone levels decrease (cortisol) while their feel-good hormone oxytocin increases, as supported by scientific evidence."

Pavelich intends to present her preliminary findings at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences held at York University in Toronto from May 27 to June 2. The research received joint funding from Mental Health Research Canada and the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.