Therapy Dog Brings Hope Into ‘Nightmare’ of Childhood Cancer

A major benefit for parents, too


“At first, Mitchell wouldn’t really look at Swoosh, wouldn’t touch Swoosh, didn’t want to do anything but look at Swoosh’s pictures,” recalls Thompson, Swoosh’s owner, and trainer. It wasn’t until later that she got the full story from Mitchell’s mother.

“She said the day they got in the car to leave after their first visit with Swoosh, Mitchell started talking again, and he just talked about Swoosh constantly,” Thompson says. “And he started becoming his old self again — kind of bubbly and talkative.”

Kristy adds incredulously, “and he would say, ‘Mommy, when do we get to go back to the hospital so I can play with Swoosh?’ I couldn’t believe it. He wanted to go get chemo so he could play with Swoosh.”

“We have a dog at home, and he loves the animals,” Kristy says, “but to see the difference between that first visit where he was very scared, very shy, wouldn’t talk and was curled up on my chest, and a couple of visits later where he’s playing with the dog, having fun, laughing. It eases some of the pressure off of us as parents.”

Bryce’s parents, Jenny and Dustin Greenwell, echo that sentiment.


“Whenever Bryce would smile during the hard times, it made us smile,” Jenny Greenwell says. “Even though we’re facing such obstacles with the surgeries and all that they have to go through, something that brought a smile to his face made us happy for sure.”

A statistically significant reduction in parental stress was one of the key findings of the randomized clinical trial, Vanderbilt’s Gilmer says.

“In the group that had the intervention with the therapy dogs, we found parents showed decreased stress in their parenting role over time,” she explains.

“That was striking to us because the stress that parents feel usually is reflected in the children. If Mom is stressed and Dad is stressed, a child usually feels it.”

Both groups of children showed a reduction in anxiety; however, the difference between the dog-therapy and non-therapy groups was not scientifically significant, which was a surprise to the researchers, says Gilmer.

“Indeed, in contrast to the researchers’ expectations, the kids in the dog therapy group showed small but statistically significant increases in their blood pressures over the course of the study,” says anthrozoologist Hal Herzog of Western Carolina University, who has spent more than two decades researching human-animal relations. Herzog was not involved with the new study.

“No research is perfect,” Herzog says, adding that he found the study to be important methodologically, due to its “fairly large sample” size, the videotaped sessions with the dogs and the use of five pediatric cancer centers as evidence of a “likelihood that the results would generalize to other settings.”

American Humane’s director of research, Amy McCullough, explains the rise in the children’s blood pressure was “likely due to the children playing with the dog, as opposed to the control group who were mostly stationary–reading books, playing on a tablet.”

For McCullough, who served as a principal investigator on the study, another significant finding was the fact that there were no issues having dogs in oncology units, despite many hospitals’ concerns.

“There was not a bite, a scratch or infection contracted from any therapy dog,” McCullough says. “That shows us that highly trained volunteer dogs can be safely used.”

Each therapy dog in the study also showed no signs of stress while working with the children and families. Swoosh’s owner Michelle Thompson wasn’t at all surprised; she believes that dogs who graduate from pet therapy training are a bit, well, special.

“Swoosh loves it,” she says. “We put his little vest on him, and he behaves differently. He knows he’s going to work. Some dogs can’t do this. I’m sure it’s like some people can do nursing and be doctors, you know, but my husband always says Swoosh was born and put on this earth to do this job because he’s just so good at it.”

Therapy Dog for All

For American Humane’s Ganzert, the study results are a “real game-changer.”

“I have a dream about a child going into a medical office and on the prescription pad, the doctor can write ‘therapy dog intervention.’ Would that be cool?” she says. “And not just for kids with cancer but for kids facing emotional abuse, for kids facing all sorts of illnesses.”

She says American Humane plans to take the results of the study to Congress to inform legislators about the importance of “human-animal bond research and how a therapy dog can be used as an alternative therapy in addition to the medical procedures for a kid with cancer.”

That sounds right to the Greenwells and the Montalbanos.

“Mitchell’s experience was so positive that I’ve decided I want to be a pet therapist,” Kristy Montalbano says. “I want to get a fluffy furball, and I want to take it to these children because I know that that will, in turn, help the parents and the other siblings as well.”

Jenny Greenwell says she thinks “it would be amazing if they had on-call therapy dog at hospitals. And if a parent is debating whether or not to use a therapy dog for their child, I would push them towards allowing their child to develop a bond with a furry friend to help get their mind off of what they’re really going through.”

Dustin Greenwell agrees: “I would say go for it. It’ll make that parent happy as well because they’ll get to see their child smile.”
What do Bryce and Mitchell think?

“I think everyone should have a chance with Swoosh,” Bryce says. “Let them have the feeling that I once did. Nothing in words can describe how good it felt to see Swoosh again.”

Mitchell resoundingly agrees: “Yes, yes! One hundred percent! “It would not make them scared anymore. I think they’d be happy.”

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