Young cancer patients find comfort in therapy dogs

Denise Dador Image
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
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Therapy dogs can have a positive impact on young children battling cancer, according to a Vanderbilt study.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (KABC) -- Children who are diagnosed with serious or chronic diseases often spend long stints in hospitals, which can trigger bouts of anxiety and depression. But now, researchers are studying a way to ease those fears and the prescription comes in the form of man's best friend.

Bryce Greenwell is no stranger to tests or hospitals. He's been diagnosed with leukemia and has to undergo treatments for the next three years or more.

"I don't know how he does it, you know, he's amazing," Bryce's mom, Jenny Greenwell, said.

But a little pup named Swoosh is making Bryce's hospital visits much more bearable.

"It gives us something to talk about. He gets excited to come see Swoosh," Jenny said.

Bryce and his pal Swoosh are participating in a study to determine if dogs can help pediatric cancer patients.

"We know that the disease takes a terrible emotional toll on families," Mary Jo Gilmer of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

Studies in adult patients show interacting with man's best friend can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and improve lung function. But this is the first pilot study to test the impact of animal therapy in kids with cancer.

"It's very obvious to me, just anecdotally, that the dogs are making a difference, that interaction is making a difference," Gilmer said.

The dogs spend about 15 minutes with patients before treatments. The kids then have their pulse and blood pressure checked before and after, and are asked questions.

The dogs even have their saliva checked to determine if they're experiencing stress.

But Swoosh's owner, Michelle Thompson, says she's sure that's not the case.

"He loves to work, he loves to get his vest on, and he's excited to go," Thompson said.

It's therapy that gives kids a welcome distraction.

Researchers at five sites across the U.S. are enrolling 120 families for the study. While they're still gathering data, one researcher notes that the kids who interact with dogs require less anti-anxiety medications that they did before the pet program started.