Therapy Dog Brings Hope Into ‘Nightmare’ of Childhood Cancer

Therapy Dog Brings Hope On ‘Nightmare’ of Childhood Cancer

(CNN) Shrieks of delight ring around the room at Vanderbilt’s Children’s Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Nine-year-old cancer survivor Bryce Greenwell gestures to his mom, Jenny. “Did you know about this?” he inquires, palms cupped to his face in wonder.

“Yes,” she replies with a nod, grinning from ear to ear.”Oh, my gosh, he has missed you guys so much!” pet therapist Michelle Thompson replies as she hands Swoosh, her trained toy Pomeranian, over to two impatient youngsters. “Did you miss him? He talks to me about you boys all the time.

“I haven’t seen him in a long time,” says 7-year-old Mitchell Montalbano, who recently graduated from chemotherapy therapy, cancer-free. “Swoosh, what have you been up to?

Meet Swoosh

Bryce and Mitchell met Swoosh and Thompson in 2014 when both boys were undergoing treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia or acute lymphoblastic leukemia, one of the most prevalent childhood cancers, more generally identified as ALL.

Leukemias are the most common cancer in youngsters, according to the National Cancer Institute, which estimates 15,270 children and juveniles through age 19 will be diagnosed with some type of cancer this year.

Many of those patients suffer through invasive and unpleasant procedures during their years of treatments, including vein punctures, spinal taps, surgery, and chemotherapy.

Thompson and Swoosh were part of a recent study evaluating the benefits of therapy dogs as part of cancer therapy, addressing such areas as reductions in pain, stress, and restlessness.

Science has demonstrated that therapy dogs can reduce loneliness, help us relax, lower blood pressure and stimulate kids with autism, but many pediatric hospitals have been hesitant to allow therapy dogs into oncology centers, indicating infection and other possible threats.

“Dogs, in general, are man’s best companion, and there is an abundance of feel-good evidence that they can help with cancer treatment,” suggested Robin Ganzert, president, and CEO of American Humane, one of the nation’s oldest animal safety associations.

The research was funded by American Humane, with funding provided by the nonprofit Human-Animal Bond Research Institute and Zoetis, a universal animal health company.

“But there’s not been a randomized scientific test,” Ganzert said. “So we started the first and the largest scientific investigation that’s ever been done to prove the benefits of pet-assisted interaction on children with cancer.” The results of the investigation were published Friday in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing.

The four-month investigation enrolled 106 children newly diagnosed with cancer, pairing 60 of them with 26 therapy dogs into units at five leading pediatric centers in Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California; Tampa, Florida; Boston and Nashville.

Before each 15-minute visit with a therapy dog, the youngsters had their blood pressure and pulse taken. They later answered a battery of stress questionnaires, which were also given to the child’s parents.

Those questions were repeated after the dog’s visit. A control group of 46 children received standard pediatric cancer care without an appointed therapy dog visit.

Vanderbilt University Professor of Nursing Mary Jo Gilmer, who headed the research in Nashville, said the research is “unique in that it’s with a very young population of cancer patients, it’s longitudinal — we have the children in the investigation for four months — and it’s across the country. We examined the stress levels of the parents and each therapy dog, as well.”

In a twist, each therapy dog also had its saliva checked for the stress hormone cortisol, and the dog’s handlers answered a questionnaire on the animal’s conduct. Each session with the dog was also filmed and studied for signs of stress.

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