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Are Stressed Dogs Helped by Interactions With Therapy Dogs?

Social interactions with a therapy dog help canines as well as humans

Creative Commons License CC0
Source: Creative Commons License CC0

I was at a university event and was describing a recent piece of research which looked at the stress reducing effects of therapy dogs that were brought on to a university campus during the midterm exam period. I found that piece of research to be fascinating because the exposure sessions involving therapy dogs was done in a big open room with a number of therapy dogs and their handlers scattered around. The setting was rather noisy, much more like a party rather than a therapy session. The interactions between the undergraduates and the therapy dogs were almost completely unstructured, allowing students to socialize with the dogs in whatever manner they chose (usually petting and talking to the dogs but sometimes more vigorous playful activities). The sessions ran only about 20 or 30 minutes. Nonetheless there was a noticeable decrease in stress levels and an increase in positive emotions for the students involved, and these beneficial effects could still be measured 10 hours later.

As I finished my description of the study, one of the people in the group asked me "Well it seems clear that therapy dogs reduce stress in people, but do you think that interaction with a therapy dog would help reduce the stress that another dog who might be anxious?"

Prior to my involvement with the therapy dogs on campus I probably would not have considered this to be a possibility, since most typical therapy dog interactions (with patients in hospitals or mental health facilities, for example) are done in a quiet setting where the stressed individual can draw comfort from the empathetic responses of the dog. However this recent study seemed to show that quiet and structure were not needed to have a positive stress reducing effect. Furthermore, it appeared as though the behavioral requirements for therapy dogs to be effective merely involved using dogs who were sociable, not easily spooked by unfamiliar settings, situations or contact with unfamiliar people, and who were accepting when it came to interactions with other individuals.

Looking at the situation that way it dawned upon me that a study has already been done which effectively tested the hypothesis that therapy dogs might be help other canines who are stressed, although the researchers were not actually seeking an answer to that question. The research team was headed by Nastassja Gfrerer who is at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Her group of investigators were interested in socialization effects involving Swiss military dogs.

In Switzerland, military dogs are used for protection (of people, buildings, or objects), for search and rescue, and also for the detection of explosives. These dogs live individually in indoor and outdoor kennels. During their upbringing these dogs do not receive the same kind of socialization that most pet dogs might get. Their exposure to situations where they might interact with people and other dogs in safe and rewarding ways are quite limited. It is well-established that dogs who have limited socialization are often susceptible to emotional stress, and this shows up as excessive aggressive or defensive behaviors. Generally speaking, it is believed by most researchers that once a dog has reached adulthood, the negative effects of poor socialization can't be helped very much.

The investigators in this study, however, wanted to test to see whether short-term exposure to another dog, one that was nonthreatening and sociable, might still help to reduce some of these stress related behaviours in these working dogs.

The basic setup of the experiment was that once the dog handlers had determined that the target military dog could safely interact with another dog or set of dogs, that military dog would get one 3 hour session per week for the duration of the eight week long experiment. These sessions provided dogs with a chance to socialize with other canines in an unstructured manner (with the dog handlers present only to control the situation if one of the dogs decided to get snippy). If you think about this, we have a situation which is very similar to bringing therapy dogs on campus and allowing students to interact with them, only here all of the participants are dogs.

The actual setup was much like one might use in studies involving the effectiveness of therapy dogs. In this case 29 military dogs were tested, immediately before and after a "treatment" session. The tests involved measuring the dog's reactions toward unfamiliar objects, including a realistic looking model of a Beagle, and also to an unfamiliar male dog. The dogs who had had the exposure to therapy dog(s) were compared to 27 control dogs who had not received the "treatment". The researchers were looking for the presence of any aggressive or defensive responses on the part of the dogs.

The results were quite clear, with the dogs who had a chance to interact socially with a therapy dog showing fewer of these stress-triggered defensive and aggressive behaviors. Although the researchers feel that the effects that they were getting involved socialization, given the evidence showing how difficult it is to socialize adult dogs, this seems, to me at least, to be unlikely. The setup is such that the situation looks much more like the effects of exposure to a therapy dog for short periods of time. If that's the case then the positive effects, although they are there and measurable, should eventually wear off over time if not strengthened by further therapeutic interactions. This is the case with most short-term therapeutic methods. If it is truly an effect on the dogs basic socialization, then the effect should be relatively permanent. Unfortunately an adequate follow-up (something like six months later) was not done, but I certainly encourage the researchers to do so while they have the opportunity.

Nonetheless, this experimental setup seems to be structurally close to the canine equivalent of a therapy dog session where the target of the therapy was another dog. The researchers summarize their results by noting "Although none of these dogs had been socialized conventionally like family dogs are, we found a clear positive effect of social exposure in adult dogs on their social behavior." That clear positive effect was a reduction in stress-related aggression and defensive behaviors.

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Nastassja Gfrerer, Michael Taborsky, Hanno Würbel (2018). Benefits of intraspecific social exposure in adult Swiss military dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 201, 54-60.