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Sask. research shows therapy dogs provide 'comfort' and 'connection' for emergency room patients


A study on the benefits of therapy dogs at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon is the first of its kind in Canada.

“Our emergency department at Royal University Hospital was actually the first emergency to ever welcome a therapy dog team in Canada, which is kind of a fun fact for Saskatoon because we're really being innovative and ahead of the game in terms of Animal Assisted intervention,” research lead Alexandria Pavelich told CTV News.

She said the study is an extension of her work on the benefits of therapy dogs for mental health patients.

“Last year, I was looking at how veterans living with PTSD and suicidality, how they benefited from working alongside their service dogs,” she said, adding that there has already been research done at RUH on how patient pain levels were impacted by therapy dog visits.

“But no one to date has really looked at how they might help mental health specifically in the emergency department. So this was really just a natural extension of some of our other studies.”

She said the opportunity to connect has benefited patients.

“Usually when I go into the mental health patients, the patients won't even really look at me, they're often looking at their feet, oftentimes, you know, they're crying, they're shaking, because they're maybe having a panic attack,” Pavelich said.

“We do a visit with the dog for about 15 to 20 minutes. And everything about the patient changes in that time period. They start to become really chatty, they're smiling, they're making eye contact, and they've just completely turned around. Usually by the end of the visit, they're thanking us saying, thank you so much for this opportunity, because it's provided such a helpful distraction, while they've had to wait in such a stressful environment.”

One patient, in particular, had a positive turnaround, she said.

“One of the very first visits that we did, it was a young man who came into the emergency and he was feeling very suicidal, he felt unsafe at home. So the police actually brought him into the emergency,” Pavelich said.

She said they took a bulldog in for a visit to the patient.

“She was actually able to get right up on the bed with the patient. He was quite quiet at first, he didn't really want to talk. But as he sat there, just kind of petting the dog, he really started to open up and just really relax. And ultimately, at the end, he just kept thanking us and saying, you know, it provided such an important distraction and comfort from what he was experiencing in terms of his own depression and helplessness.”

She said a nurse at the hospital even thanked them.

“They were able to make a plan for him and he was actually discharged within the hour by the time we left. The dogs just provide such a sense of connection and a way to provide support that's non-judgmental for people that it just has such a positive impact not just for the patients but the staff as well.”


Pavelich said the dogs they use for the study are considered therapy dogs, not service dogs.

“They do have to have basic obedience and pass a test through St. John Ambulance, whereas a service dog, they're specially trained to assist one single person with daily living challenges.”

She said as a researcher, she also guards the well-being of the dogs.

“We approach all of our work and all of our research from a really strong animal welfare perspective. We want people to understand that dogs are not tools. They're sentient beings and the interactions that they have with people, it's a give and take relationship, meaning that both the dogs and the humans are benefiting.”

She said the dogs they work with are social and enjoy meeting people, making them ideal to help patients.

“None of the findings that we're getting would exist if the dog didn't enjoy and want to be doing what they were doing, because this type of work is absolutely something they're built for because they love that opportunity to connect with new people and get pets.”


Pavelich said they’ve done about 50 hours of observations with 24 patients and hope to finish in the next couple of weeks.

“Our goal is to be able to get dogs into more spaces because they're showing that they're so helpful with all types of recovery work,” she said.

“A lot of the people that we've seen in there, they're coming in alone, they don't have a support person with them. And when the emergency department is so busy, the staff are doing their absolute best to see people as quickly as they can. But a lot of times, these people just need someone to sit and be there with them and just provide support, and the dog is honestly the best way to do that.

She said for some people, a pet is the main source of social support they have.

“This bond is integral to people's well-being and anything we can do that's low risk, like bringing a dog in, whether that's a hospital inpatient setting, a correctional setting, which maybe it's helping rehabilitate people a little bit. It's just such an easy thing to do that.”

Pavelich said the majority of dog visits have been 15-20 minutes, but some have gone longer.

“If somebody is in a high level of distress, but they're really getting a benefit out of it, we've sat with some people for 45 minutes to an hour before, just until they started to feel a bit more relaxed and comfortable.”

The research was funded by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, and Pavelich said she just received $100,000 more to continue the study.

“I have received three years of funding from the federal government to continue it and I'm really going to be looking specifically at people that are coming in feeling suicidal and how the dogs help impact them.”

The findings were presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Toronto held May 27 to June 2. Top Stories

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