Therapy dogs have been applied in several settings including rehabilitation, special education for children, and literacy programs to encourage and support progress. And according to a preliminary report just released by researchers at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, New Jersey, therapy dogs may be useful in alleviating patients' anxiety before undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

MRIs require patients to remain completely motionless within the confines of a dark, narrow tube as a machine scans the body using magnetic fields and radio wave energy. Loud, knocking noises are often heard during the process, which usually runs for approximately 30 minutes. Anxiety or fear of having an MRI can trigger claustrophobia, panic attacks, and ultimately dissatisfaction with medical procedures and health-care providers. Such reactions can also cause poor image quality from movement during the MRI or premature termination of the procedure.

Anti-anxiety drugs are currently used to calm nervous patients, but the medications are invasive and have potentially negative side effects. Therapy dogs may offer an alternative and safe solution to reduce fears, much like they do for patients undergoing hospitalization and other procedures.

What Therapy Dogs Did for Claustrophobic Patients

In the study, 28 patients about to undergo an MRI met with a certified therapy dog for approximately 30 minutes, engaging in varying degrees of interaction with the animal. Participants also answered questionnaires about their anxiety levels just before and after the intervention.

Based on self-reporting, the patients' anxiety levels significantly decreased after spending time with therapy dogs. Though preliminary, the findings demonstrated therapeutic benefits of dog therapy to anxious, worried and scared patients.

Impact On MRI Claustrophobia

According to the principal researcher, Dr. Richard Ruchman, approximately 15% of patients fail to complete their MRIs because of claustrophobia. He urged further studies to confirm his results on the efficacy of therapy dogs as an ideal, safe alternative to medication in such cases.

Animal-Assisted Therapy focuses on patient interventions that provide support, companionship and motivation in conjunction with traditional methods. The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of lives of patients of all ages by facilitating interactions between people and trained animals. Patients and dog safety is paramount, and intensive training is required for not only potential therapy dogs, but also their caretakers.

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Michele Rosenthal
Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, Ph.D.
Maisha M. Syeda, MSc.
Herman R. Lukow II, Ph.D.


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