While the positive effects of therapy dogs have been studied for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an increased awareness for their ability to help in the health care industry.
An American Medical Association study found that of nearly 21,000 physicians surveyed nationally during the first year of the pandemic, 43 percent reported suffering from work overload and about 49 percent had experienced “burnout.” A study published on the National Library of Medicine website noted in August 2021, more than a third of about 19,000 nurses surveyed reported emotional exhaustion from the toll faced at work.
With this in mind, Dignity Health Bakersfield and Marley’s Mutts announced a partnership to expand access to their four-legged “dog-tors,” which the organizations announced Wednesday, thanks to support from the Friends of Mercy Foundation.
“At Mercy Hospital, we’ve had pet therapy dogs historically, but just a very small staff of them, and so when we were looking for ways to especially support our caregivers during this time, with such high rates of burnout, this intervention went to the top of the list,” said Toni Harper, vice president of philanthropy for Mercy Hospital.
The new partnership will allow the program at the hospital to have day and night shift availability by growing the number of dog-handler teams from two to 12, according to hospital officials. And the dogs provide invaluable support to patients, as well.
The dogs have impacts in a number of areas for patients and caregivers, according to UCLA Medical’s Patient-Animal Connection program.
In addition to the mental health effects, such as a reduced feeling of loneliness, anxiety and stress, the therapy pets are able to help lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health and even reduce the amount of medication that some patients require, according to program data .
What’s a little less understood remains the how behind the effectiveness of the treatment.
“I can’t explain it,” said Dr. Jeffrey Coleman, a hospitalist with Dignity Health’s Bakersfield medical campuses.
“I think on some level, maybe the dogs can kind of understand and pick up something emotionally from the patients,” he added. “They just sit there, and it just provides a little bit of peace, a connection, I think is a good way to word it. I think any patient or staff who’s open, who likes animals to begin with, will maybe do a little bit better.They really provide a level of comfort and tranquility.”
The partnership with Marley’s Miracle Mutts also means a variety of different dogs — the nonprofit’s motto is “all breeds, all creeds” — is available to help, with their therapy pets ranging from a 5-pound Pomeranian to a 120-pound Rhodesian ridgeback. All of the animals are certified as therapy pets and registered with the American Kennel Club.
Torie Beck, program coordinator for Marley’s Miracle Mutts, wasn’t quite able to explain the efficacy, but she said it’s easy to observe, whether it’s help for a nurse struggling with a difficult day or a patient dealing with decisions about palliative care.
Part of the therapeutic effect is almost an energy the dogs sense and bring to those they help, Beck said.
While some of the dogs in her program have gone through challenges or had difficult backgrounds — the dog that she handles, Sully, is blind — their positivity in spite of these obstacles can really inspire.
“I think it’s something that we can take away from animals, is giving ourselves some of that grace and understanding that, even if we can’t do things the way that we did at one time doesn’t mean we can’t still do the things we’re passionate about,” she said.
Or in Sully’s case, she added: “It doesn’t mean he can’t do what he loves to do and what he was put on this earth to do.”