Do Therapy Dogs Work? A Research Study Weighs In

Does your therapist have big ears, a long tail and a scent that might be described as slightly “canine?”

This one does.

Her name is Piper, and she serves as a therapy dog with Skyline Academy at WellPower’s Dahlia Campus for Health & Well-Being. And now, she’s at the center of a brand-new academic study exploring the efficacy of therapy dogs in supporting children’s mental health treatment.

“It all started with a really random email looking for advice initially,” said Danielle Graves, LCSW, AASW, a child and family therapist with Skyline Academy at WellPower – and Piper’s partner in therapy.

Studying Therapy Dogs

Researchers at the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver (DU) contacted Danielle for guidance around best practices in canine-assisted interventions (CAI) for children, especially those from diverse backgrounds who often face additional barriers to accessing treatment. It didn’t take long for the conversation to become a fully-fledged research collaboration.

“It was really exciting to start with a question, then develop a protocol, implement the protocol and then see what the result is. I think we all intuitively know how having animals helps, but it’s cool to see it in black and white,” said Graves.

The team wanted to assess how well a therapy dog:

-Increased children’s engagement in treatment
-Strengthened the relationship between children and their therapists (called a “working alliance”), and
-Reduced anxiety of the children and/or therapist

We’ll reveal the results soon – for now, let’s talk about what Piper actually does as a therapy dog at Skyline.

What Does Piper the Therapy Dog Actually Do?

Skyline Academy serves students in grades 1-8 who may have encountered barriers in traditional public schools due to behaviors, strong emotions, trauma, educational disabilities or challenges with peer relationships. At Skyline, students build social, emotional and academic skills that support their success once they return to their home school.

When it’s time for Graves to start working with a student, Piper goes along to walk them from the classroom to Graves’ office. This gives the kids a chance to interact with Piper along the way, transition mentally from academics to therapy and build some spontaneous (but intentional) skills. When practicing tricks, for example, if the student makes a mistake and Piper doesn’t do the trick, there is a natural opportunity to work on emotional regulation and managing disappointment.

“How do we address this thing that didn’t go quite right; how do we build ‘frustration tolerance,’ communication skills, empathy; what does [Piper] need in order to do what we need her to do next time?” explained Graves, “We also work on environmental awareness and nonverbals – what’s your body language telling her?”

In Graves’ office, they make a plan for the session and start in on what they want to work on, whether practicing a skill, doing an activity or talking through a difficult experience. Through the whole session, Piper is there, and not just as a prop: “Piper makes the therapeutic space feel so safe and welcoming for many people. It’s been really positive for kids who are working through trauma, or haven’t had the most positive experiences with therapy in the past.”

Piper is also a perceptive barometer of what’s happening in the room during a session. She might pick up on a subtle cue about how the child is feeling that the therapist might otherwise miss. This intuition can be helpful for the child as well – they might not recognize exactly when they’re starting to feel anxious or upset, and a prompt from Piper can let them know when it’s time to self-regulate.

In addition to working individually with students, Piper goes into classrooms to work with small groups. Kids read to her, do math with her and practice spelling with her. This gives them a chance to learn by “teaching,” and to do so in a safe, low-risk environment – often much different from the experiences they’ve had in the past, which can be full of anxiety and feelings of judgment.

“The safety she brings people is really incredible. It’s really cool to see,” said Graves.

Piper lies down next to a student in the classroom

The Study Results: Does this Work?

The initial findings of this first 14-week study confirm much of what Graves has known all along – that professionally trained therapy animals like Piper can make a meaningful difference to a child in therapy. Here are the results:

Engagement: Students in the study spent twice as long in a therapy session when Piper was present than they otherwise do – a very exciting finding.
“Working Alliance”: There was a marginal improvement here supported by strong anecdotal observations, though it was not statistically significant due to the relatively small sample size. This is one area for the next phase of research.
Anxiety: While the clinician’s stress was reduced by having Piper in the room, it was less clear whether Piper caused stress to decrease among the kids; however, Piper did increase engagement, which has a strong relationship with reductions in stress. This is another area for the next study.

Graves sees this as a solid foundation for more research into different aspects of animal therapy for children. “This is a really great jumping off point to help demonstrate why animal assisted therapy is effective, and to help people understand why it does help,” said Graves, “Everyone at WellPower has been so supportive in letting us try this and go down this research path. And DU has been lovely to work with.”

Looking Ahead

Graves looks forward to more studies exploring different aspects of canine assisted intervention for children’s therapy. More than anything, though, her focus is on continuing to share Piper’s gifts with the students at Skyline.

“I hope that our clients that walk away have an opportunity to heal and feel better in some way – that they’re ready for what’s next – so when they go to their next school, therapist, whatever that challenge is in the future, they feel more prepared and ready to tackle those challenges. And I hope that Piper was part of that journey.”

For now, it’s another day of work for Piper. There is a whole classroom of kids waiting for their own special moment with her. And she can’t wait.