"I’m not saying dogs are better than people but, actually that’s exactly what I’m saying."
I live with five pets. Some people may think that’s five too many, but I think it shows that I am really really committed to my mental health. Sure, sometimes my furry brood is inconvenient or annoying, but they also give my life structure and make me smile and laugh all the time. It turns out that my admittedly furry and expensive style of self-medicating may be more effective than I ever imagined. This new research suggests that spending 10 minutes with a dog can reduce pain.
The small study, which was published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, measured pain symptoms in 198 participants who came into the emergency department at Royal University Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada. What researchers found was that spending just 10 minutes with a therapy dog reduced the symptoms of pain, anxiety, and depression.
Here’s how the experiment worked: Participants in the study were interviewed, assessed for pain levels, and had their vitals checked when they arrived at the emergency department. As they were leaving, about half of the participants were taken to a dog therapy ambulance where they spent 10 minutes with a dog trained to help people in pain.
People responded to the therapy dogs in different ways. Sometimes the participants had conversations with the dogs or the handlers, sometimes they petted the dogs, and sometimes the dogs just nuzzled them, US News reported. The pain scaling and other measurements were repeated twice as participants were leaving the emergency department, once immediately after they saw therapy dogs and again 20 minutes after.
"The main thing is we found that they helped reduce pain in a significant way, which is huge,” Colleen Anne Dell, a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, told US News. Participants in the therapy dog group rated pain significantly lower than those in the control group, according to the study.
How much an individual’s pain and anxiety were reduced varied, but the researchers seemed taken aback at how well participants responded to the doggos. "You could feel all that high-stress energy had just dissipated and you see the person petting the dog and having a conversation with the handler," Dell told US News. “Sometimes the dog is just snuggling up to them and they're getting that comfort from that animal.” Awwww.
While we are just learning about the role that companion animals play in human health, this is not the first study to document the way therapy dogs can help people in pain. Another recent study suggests that a 12-minute visit with a therapy dog has more clinically measurable benefit than visiting with a human. In other words, we’re just learning how much animal-assisted interventions can help peoples’ experience of pain and anxiety and in increasing their sense of wellbeing.
“The things that you can gain from pets and some of the positive emotions that could be elicited from having the pet around you I think could have an impact on the pain experience itself,” Michelle Gagnon, assistant professor of psychology and health studies at the University of Saskatchewan, told CNN. Gagnon explained that pain is both a physiological and a social experience, and that — unlike humans — dogs have the ability to support us without appraisal or judgment. I’m not saying dogs are better than people, but, actually that’s exactly what I’m saying.