The positive effect of animals on people has been scientifically proven and is often used therapeutically. But how are therapy dogs doing, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna asked themselves. In a study that has now been published, they showed that the animals are no more stressed during group therapy than they are in their free time – provided they participate voluntarily and can move about freely.
Animal-assisted therapy is increasingly being used to treat physical and mental illnesses in humans. Although there are numerous scientific studies on animal-assisted therapy, the main focus of research has so far been on the effects on humans. Lisa Maria Glenk from the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna, on the other hand, examines the therapy situation from an animal perspective. “If the animals are stressed at work, this can have negative consequences for their mental and physical health. If the animals are doing well, it ultimately benefits people,” says the scientist.
Freedom of movement of the dogs is important
The study, which has now been published, examined five trained and experienced therapy dogs that regularly attended group sessions with drug addicts. The stress level of the dogs at different points in time could be determined using saliva samples taken during and after the therapy sessions and during leisure time. An indicator of the stress level is the cortisol level in the saliva. In addition, the behavior of the dogs was documented by video. The results provide important information: “Therapy dogs are not stressed during this type of therapy work,” summarizes Glenk.
In an earlier study, the scientist showed that dogs that act without a leash in animal-assisted therapy with psychiatric patients have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than dogs that are on a leash. “So it depends on whether the animals can move freely, i.e. are not tied to a leash, and whether they are free to leave the room at any time,” emphasized Glenk.
Excessive demands and insecurity have a negative effect
However, if therapy dogs are insecure or overwhelmed, symptoms such as hair loss, dandruff, biting the leash, or diarrhea can occur. This can also result in refusal to feed, avoiding eye contact with people, or reduced ability to concentrate.
Dog owners should take acute stress signals during therapy sessions seriously and remove the animals from the situation. Regular “supervision” for therapy dogs is also recommended. Veterinarians with knowledge of behavioral research could use animal supervision to detect individual abnormalities in therapy dogs at an early stage.