A new Case Western Reserve University study found that children
visiting the dentist reported reduced situational fear when a certified therapy
dog is present.
The research was done by the university’s School of Dental Medicine and Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, with support from Salimetrics, a Southern California company that collects saliva samples for analysis.
Aviva Vincent, a Mandel School instructor and researcher, and
her team surveyed 199 dental patients and 79 dental professionals about the
acceptability and desire to have therapy dogs in the pediatric dentist office. Results
showed that 63 percent of the patients were interested, while 80 percent of the
dental professionals were “open to the idea.”
Then, 18 children between age 8 and 12 who needed cavities filled participated in the pilot study—the second phase of a two-part study examining the relationship between certified therapy dogs and children.
Researchers collected the children’s saliva samples before
and after dogs were brought into the dentist office to measure cortisol and
alpha-amylase—both stress indicators—and oxytocin, a relaxation response.
“This is an innovative step in the research because oxytocin has remained somewhat elusive—being able to measure change of oxytocin over time helps us understand, from a strengths perspective, the physiological benefit of human-animal interaction,” Vincent said.
Findings from the study highlighted that 83 percent of
parents and guardians supported the therapy dog’s presence during their child’s
dental appointment. But all of them supported the idea in a follow-up survey.
“Within the past few years, it’s become widely accepted that pet ownership and animal-assisted therapy has various biopsychosocial positive effects on people,” Vincent said. “Existing research has provided evidence of the benefits. What hasn’t been as clear is how therapy animals help.”
Vincent said it’s important to distinguish therapy dogs from
service dogs and emotional support animals. The role of therapy dogs, she said, is
to react and respond to people and their environment, under the guidance and
direction of their owner. For example, the children in the dentist office
were encouraged to gently pat or talk to a dog as a calming
Service dogs, on the other hand, are trained to provide
specific support for individuals with disabilities.
Vincent said that perhaps the biggest takeaway of the pilot
study was that collecting saliva samples is a viable, non-invasive way to
measure stress and fear indicators in social science research.
“The idea is to find out how an animal can augment a
situation,” she said. “Is it reducing fear, anxiety, stress or all of them? The
next step is to get a much larger sample size.”
Plans are to continue the research at CWRU and to expand the same methodology to humans interacting with horses at the Field Stone Farms Therapeutic Riding Center in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where Vincent also works as the director of program quality.