Exam season has arrived, and with it the therapy dogs. The canine companions are part of many UTSG campus-wide efforts to relieve students’ stress during the chaotic exam period. This is a process known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT). But dogs aren’t the only animals that are capable of helping humans; other forms of AAT use horses, dolphins, cats, and more. However, researchers have yet to establish the benefits and scientific basis for AAT due to a lack of substantial findings, leading to the question: are therapy dogs really effective?
Studies show that therapy animals benefit people who are stressed and relieve effects of conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and autism. Even so, there has been no scientific mechanism found to explain how these animals benefit people suffering from mental, genetic, or physical illness.
Margaret Schneider, an Associate Professor in Applied Psychology and Human Development at OISE, is an expert on the therapeutic use of animals and the effects of companion animals on mental health.
She notes that research of AAT with dogs focuses mostly on coping with stress. This may refer to stress caused by other illnesses or disorders, such as autism-spectrum disorder.
She added that therapy dogs could help autistic children, eventually allowing them to develop better interaction skills and pay more attention in the classroom.
Downsides of AAT research such as small sample sizes and a lack of a no-treatment control group or standardized treatment procedure make it difficult to establish scientific evidence for its benefits. Schneider added that although AAT cannot produce a clinical trial, it does hold ecological validity.
Additionally, there needs to be more research on determining whether the therapeutic benefits of AAT are long-term or temporary. These findings have the potential to restructure the current treatments for stress and provide an alternative to drug therapy.
According to Schneider, it is unclear what therapy dogs are actually doing, although we can see outcomes.