How Do Dogs Feel About Being Therapy Animals?

CC BY 2.0. Robert Kaufmann/FEMA

Anyone who knows dogs probably knows the answer to this question.

Some humans may think that dogs are reliant on us, but in truth, it may be the humans who are reliant on dogs. Of course, it’s actually a two-way street – like a good kind of codependent relationship. But one thing is certain; dogs do a lot for us and should be rewarded with our eternal respect.

Aside from the almost 90 million dogs who provide companionship as pets at home in the United Sttes, there are tens of thousands more who work as service dogs, or work in the military, or search and rescue, or who spend their days sniffing for drugs and explosives. And of course, there are the therapy dogs; these sweet helpers who provide scientifically verified benefits to people who have suffered everything from trauma and health conditions to dementia.

There are more than 50,000 therapy dogs working in the United States, and given how much they do for us, it’s only reasonable to ask: Do they enjoy the work? It would be awful to think that they don’t.

Thankfully, a group of researchers has looked at the question. In a report published earlier this year, and recently reported on by Linda Lombardi at National Geographic, the team found that the dogs they study didn’t seem to mind at all. And in fact, in most cases seem to enjoy it.

The research centered around dogs visiting pediatric oncology patients from around the United States.

"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," says study leader Amy McCullough, national director of research and therapy at American Humane.

The researchers determined stress by measuring levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the dogs’ saliva. Samples were taken both at home and during therapy times. The team also analyzed the dogs’ behaviors.

Lombardi writes, “The scientists found no difference between the study dogs' cortisol levels at home and at the hospital, evidence that the therapy dogs were not particularly stressed.”

And the conclusions are in line with previous research. But does a lack of stress indicate that they actually enjoyed the work?

For the most part, yes! Although they apparently enjoyed some things more. Lombardi writes, “for example, dogs seemed happier during some activities than others; a child talking to the dog or playing with its toy, for example, seemed to elicit more friendly responses than a child brushing the animal or drawing it.

McCullough notes, "it's fair to say that some activities are more fun for the dog. This is good information for handlers—they can lean toward the activities that they think their dog would enjoy."

Which also brings up a good point. A lot of people think their perfect pet would be perfect for the job – but it has to be good fit to ensure that the dog benefits as well. Lombardi writes that therapy dog trainers and certifiers, as well as owners, need to look for enthusiasm, not mere tolerance.

"It needs to be a mutually beneficial interaction when they are visiting with the client,” says McCullough, “so it's important that the dog really loves their job."

Happy canines, soothed humans ... all in a dog-day's work.

Read more at National Geographic and see the whole study here at Applied Animal Behaviour Science.