When You Need a Friend Most

Trained animal therapy dogs bring joy, ease pain.

By Mia James

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No one makes friends more effortlessly than a sociable dog. And this particular type of friendship is joyful and genuine: full of love, fun and easy companionship. It’s just what you’re looking for when you’re sad, scared or lonely—likely familiar feelings if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

So why not bring these special friends to patients when they most need comfort? This is the goal of Pet Partners (, an organization that sets standards for animal therapy and offers registration for animals and handlers who work together to provide Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA). Pet Partners describes AAA as “casual ‘meet and greet’ activities that involve pets visiting people.” This is different from Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), which involves “goal-directed intervention” in which a trained animal is partnered with experts, such as physical therapists, to help a patient achieve a specified goal (throwing a ball for a dog to increase range of motion in an arm, for example).

Animals Make an Impact

At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), therapy dogs are making a difference for patients, caregivers and employees. Cynthia Ingram, RN, who runs the animal therapy program at CTCA® in Zion, Illinois, explains that the particular goal of AAA at CTCA is to “provide loving kindness to our patients and their family members,” while also managing stress. Studies have shown that having animal assisted therapy decreases anxiety, pain and helps lessen depression. Specific benefits of AAA include stress reduction, companionship and a positive distraction from treatment schedules and worry.

According to Ingram, adding a registered therapy dog to their care team has been overwhelmingly positive. She says that everyone who interacts with their therapy dog, Tori (an Australian Labradoodle), seems to have their days brightened by her presence. “It’s an honor to see benefits and be involved in people’s lives this way,” Ingram, who is also Tori’s handler, says. Encounters with therapy dogs like Tori can be “very healing,” she says. “It’s something patients can talk about other than focusing on their illness. .” For example, she tells of one instance where a patient, who was in terrible pain, said that a visit from Tori was the only thing that could make her smile.

Elaine Smith, MS, LMFT, a mind-body therapist who directs the animal therapy program at CTCA in Newnan, Georgia, says that the reception for their animal therapy dog, Cody (a Portuguese Water Dog), is equally positive. “When you bring Cody into a room, the environment changes,” she says, “You can feel the stress melt away.” Smith explains that visits with Cody seem to make people feel better overall, mind and body. “He creates a sense of personal well-being that can also encourage healing.” For patients, she says, feeling better emotionally can affect their immune systems, heart rates and other functions in ways that actually help them become healthier.

Caregivers and Employees Also Benefit

Ingram says that patients who are withdrawn often start interacting in Tori’s presence, with Tori and with their human companions. In this way, a visit from a therapy animal not only brightens the patient’s outlook but also that of loved ones. “It helps the family seeing a patient actually smiling, talking to the dog,” she says. “The caregivers feel so much better because the patient is feeling better.”

Employees are also finding comfort in having a dog around the hospital. Ingram explains that when she and Tori encounter colleagues on their rounds, those having a challenging day report that they feel better immediately after spending a moment with Tori. Most remarkable, she says, has been seeing the employees who were not previously “dog people” connect with Tori.

On the Job with Tori and Cody

For Tori and Ingram, their workday at CTCA in Zion begins by checking the inpatient unit “exclusion sheet”—the list of patients who aren’t eligible for a visit with Tori, often due to immune system concerns, such as low white blood cell or platelet counts. “We want to make sure it’s safe for the patients to see Tori,” she explains. They then begin their rounds, going from room to room, asking each patient if they’d like to see the therapy dog. Most often, Ingram says, she and Tori are invited in for a visit.

From here Tori knows her job: “She goes right up and puts her head on the patient’s bed,” Ingram explains. And even though Tori is trained in patient interaction, each situation is a little different, depending on the relationship she and the patient establish together. One thing tends to be consistent from room to room, however, and that’s that encounters with Tori are happy occasions. “She brings a lot of joy to everyone she meets,” Ingram says.

Cody and animal therapy are recent additions to CTCA in Newnan, and Smith has worked closely with Ingram to develop a standardized animal therapy program. Smith explains that they follow similar protocol as Zion does to protect patient health.

Cody works on the first floor of the hospital, which Smith describes as “an open gallery that runs the length of hospital.” She says that as Cody and his handler Steve Smith (Smith’s husband) work their way through the floor, “The whole place lights up.” He starts with the front desk and moves on to outpatient areas and imaging and radiation departments. Cody also works as the front door greeter and makes appearances at special occasions, such as radiation graduations and photo ops. “Cody’s become an instant part of the staff down here,” Smith says, “He’s an employee.”

Patient Safety Comes First

Patient safety needs to be a primary concern of any successful animal therapy program. Both CTCA programs have measures in place to protect the health of human and animal participants.

To begin with Tori and Cody are each registered as therapy dogs through Pet Partners. This involves a year of initial training with five classes, practical tests for the dogs and handlers as well as written tests for handlers. To keep their registration, dogs and handlers must retest every two years. Ingram says that the testing process is strict, which means that any potential problems (such as an animal becoming short tempered) are detected before they become issues.

In addition, the Zion and Newnan hospitals allow only one dog to work at each hospital (Tori in Zion, Cody in Newnan). As a result, employees at both facilities know their dogs well—their behavior and how they’re trained. They also monitor the dogs’ health and care, making sure they’re regularly bathed, their nails are kept trimmed, and all veterinary check-ups and vaccinations are current.

Even with careful precautions, animal therapy isn’t safe for all cancer patients. As mentioned previously, individuals with compromised immune systems may not be good candidates, and people with pet allergies or asthma will often avoid exposure to pets. For some allergy sufferers, however, dog breeds with hair, rather than fur (Labradoodles and Portuguese Water Dogs, for example), may be safe options. If a patient does have allergies, however, they will want to talk with their doctor before any visit with a therapy animal.

Ingram explains that there are other situations in which a pet therapy visit could put the patient at risk. “If someone’s in isolation, we won’t go in the room”, she says. She and Tori also don’t see patients with open wounds and typically avoid the stem cell unit and ICU (intensive care unit).

To determine whether an animal therapy program is safe, Ingram suggests considering the following: “Make sure there are trained professionals to provide animal therapy.” Trained professionals are registered through a reputable organization, such as Pet Partners. Therapy animals, as well, should also be registered.

Making Days, Visit by Visit

In all the ways they interact with patients, caregivers and employees, CTCA therapy dogs are making a remarkable impact, boosting the spirits of everyone they encounter. As Ingram says, with animal therapy, I thoroughly enjoy being part of a multidisciplinary team that serves our patients and caregivers in such a holistic way.