Mental Health Mondays – “The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy on Mental Health”

Mental Health Mondays - July 6 Event

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Key Takeaways – July 6, 2020 | 8 a.m. 

Dorian, Golisano Children’s Hospital Therapy Dog

Anna Stephanz, BS, and Erika Zalecky, MA, Lee Health Certified Child Life Specialists and Dorian’s handlers

“The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy on Mental Health”


  1. What is Animal-Assisted Therapy (ATT)?
    • A goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process
    • Work alongside a professional and is recognized as a therapeutic form of treatment
  2. What is a facility dog or hospital-based community service dog?
    • A trained dog that works with a handler (hospital employee) in the hospital daily and is utilized in a clinician role for goal-orientated AAT intervention
      • Dorian is a full-time hospital employee of the child life team
      • Dorian participates in clinical interventions and therapeutic interaction on a full-time schedule
      • Dorian had 12-24 months of training at service dog organization; his handlers then attend “camp” for 1-2 weeks to train with Dorian
      • Dorian is a worker first, pet second
    • These dogs in other facilities have also been used out in the community following disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, and to provide support to communities following mass shootings
    • We also have an incredible pet therapy program at Golisano Children’s Hospital in which volunteers bring their certified dogs to visit the patients and families
  3. Who is Dorian?
    • 5-year-old goldendoodle (golden retriever and poodle)
    • Joined the Child Life team at Golisano in November 2019
    • Dorian came from Canine Assistance, which is in Milton, Georgia, and trains dogs for individuals as well as hospitals
      • At 10 months of age, Dorian went to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to begin hospital training and get desensitized to the sounds and experiences of hospitals
      • His training is a bond-based approach which uses social connection to influence and educate dogs to voluntarily cooperate instead of following commands
    •  Dorian is paired with two members of the child life team, Erika and Anna
    •  Dunkin’ Donuts Joy in Childhood Foundation
      • Grant funded for the first three years of service
      • Dogs For Joy Program, which provides in-residence service dogs to children’s hospitals across the country
      • Provided funding for about 11 dogs nationwide in 9 hospitals including Cleveland Clinic and Texas Children’s Hospital
  1. What Are the Benefits of a Facility Dog?
    • Research has shown that animals have been proven to help pediatric patients and staff at children’s hospitals, we’ve seen that here
    • Provides comfort for patients and families with family and sibling support during bereavements
    • Trained in variety of tasks including teaching patients how to take oral meds, providing support during medical procedures, and providing motivation for children that need to ambulate during their hospital stay. We have them help walk or throw the ball with Dorian.
    • Provides opportunity for medical play to familiarize patient with equipment. He is very patient.
    • Available for staff support after difficult cases. First Friday of the month, we bring doughnuts and Dorian to spend time with the staff
    • By being full time, he provides consistency, especially for long term patients and chronic patients with frequent visits
    • Helps to decrease isolation, helps build gaps in communication with patients who are withdrawn.
    • Provides opportunity to co-treat with other disciplines (physical therapy, nursing, psychology, etc.)
  2. Biological Impact of Interactions with Dogs (AAT), shown in research
    • Reduced epinephrine and norepinephrine (the hormones that that are released in the body’s fight or flight response to stress)
    • Increased endorphins
    • Increased oxytocin
    • Reduced blood pressure. Dorian can elicit relaxation for patients and family
    • Reduced cortisol, which persists after the dog has left
  3. Impacts on Physical Health from Interactions with Dogs (AAT)
    • Act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response
    • Stabilizes blood pressure
    • Reduces the risk of disease, heart attacks, and stroke
    • Improves cardiovascular health
    • Breathing slows in those who are anxious
    • Diminishes overall physical pain
  4. Impacts on Mental Health from Interactions with Dogs (AAT)
    • Decreases isolation and depression
    • Promotes sense of calm
    • Bridges communication gaps
    • Provides comfort
    • Reduces boredom, giving patients something to look forward to
    • Lowers anxiety and decreases agitation
    • Creates motivation for the client to recover faster
    • Reduces loneliness
    • Diminishes emotional pain


Questions from viewers:

Q: How do you get Dorian’s services at Golisano Children’s Hospital?

A: Erika: Contact a Child Specialist on the floor and they will connect you.

Q: Does Dorian ever have a bad day at work?

A: Erika: I don’t think he’s ever had a bad day. There are some days where he is kind of tired. He works 8 hours a day, so it’s important to make sure he gets different breaks and rest times. We do use him for emotional and high stress situations, which can take a toll on dogs. We’ve built into our day times for play, like fetch in the hallway or letting him chase lizards in the garden. We also give him time for rest. He’s often more tired by the end of the week. It depends on the patient load. He’s always pretty happy, and we can see that he loves what he does. While he was on vacation, he was not as happy as when he came back to work.