It’s Friday afternoon and Harry has just clocked on for his weekly shift in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Canberra Hospital.
Machines are beeping and buzzing in every direction. Nurses are scurrying around the corridors while doctors monitor critically ill patients.
An intensive care unit can be a confronting and unpleasant place to be. And that’s where Harry comes in. His job is to bring a sense of calm and cheer to an otherwise stressful environment.
Harry is a dog.
He’s working today with nurse Claire, trying to provide patients, their families and staff with a distraction from the critical circumstances so common in the ICU.
They walk three steps down the corridor and stop for an exchange with a staff member, who gives Harry a scratch behind the ear. They walk a bit further and he receives a pat from another nurse.
Harry the cocker spaniel is a certified therapy dog who is leading Australia’s first therapy dog trial in an intensive care unit.
ICU Clinical Consultant, Carly Thornburgh, says the trial is a three-year research project between the hospital and the Delta Dog Society.
“It took us over 12 months [with infection control and other stakeholders] to get our therapy dogs into intensive care,” she says.
“I could see the possibility of therapy animals and the impact they could have on our patients.”
The goal of the project is to examine how having a dog present can reduce levels of stress and anxiety for ICU patients and staff.
Registered nurse, Kathleen Cook, says the ICU was chosen because the nature of the ward can be a dehumanising experience for patients and their families.
“The lights are always on so it’s hard to decipher from day and night and patients can become delirious after a couple of days,’ she says. “We just want to soften the environment and give people something to look forward to.”
The therapeutic potential of dogs
Dog therapy is a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal to provide emotional support and companionship to a person during a vulnerable time.
Carly Thornburgh says having the therapy dogs in the ICU transforms the hospital environment.
“You can see the change in levels of stress and anxiety, which is palpable in intensive care, before the dog comes and you can feel that shift after he’s been. The testimonials from patients and their family members are huge.”
The research project at Canberra Hospital study was inspired by a program in the US at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and medical research by the University of California, which suggests dog therapy can improve a patient’s mental and physical health.
The research indicates petting an animal releases an automatic relaxation response, lowering anxiety and elevating the person’s mood.
While the therapy program is still in its initial stages, nurse Kathleen Cook says the therapy dogs are having a positive effect on ICU patients.
“When Harry is present the patient’s heart rates go down, their blood pressure goes down, anxiety goes down and, sometimes, pain.”
Other uses of dog therapy
The program in Canberra Hospital’s ICU is a part of an emerging medical approach on how dogs can help people cope with adversity.
Increasingly in Australia, dogs are being used as companions to assist individuals with mental health issues. Studies have shown that the presence of a dog can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Canberran Matilda Trevaskis says when her mental health was declining at a rapid rate, her mum suggested that she adopt a dog from the RSPCA.
Matilda had a sentimental attachment to the family’s childhood pet and her mum believed adopting a dog would encourage her to socialise more.
Initially hesitant about the idea, Matilda has now owned Maisie for two years and says her dog has provided her with the motivation to try to deal with her struggles.
“She is the reason for me to get up every morning because I need to feed her, take care of her and walk her,” Matilda says.
“Whenever I’m down, as well, she knows it because she will just curl up to me which is really nice.”
Dogs and loneliness
There are many different ways a dog can provide support. Increasingly, dog therapy is being used to help individuals who are experiencing loneliness.
When a person goes into an aged care facility they have to leave so much of their life behind them. Gone is their independence, family members, freedom and, for many due to nursing home regulations, their beloved pets.
For the past 30 years the team from the ACT Dog Companion Club (DCC) in Canberra have given residents from aged care facilities a break from the loneliness of living in aged care.
The team visits retirement villages once a month with trained therapy dogs to interact with the residents and provide an outlet for some much-needed pats and cuddles.
DCC program coordinator, Lesley Pothan says Molly, her Shih Tzu, has an overwhelmingly positive effect on the residents.
“They get really excited when they see us walking in,” Lesley says. “They yell out ‘it’s dogs’ day!’ and you can just tell they really look forward to it”.
“For some of the residents you can tell for them it’s just a joy to see the dogs. They pat them, they want to cuddle and they really love it”.
It’s the ability of dogs to provide this emotional support, often in stressful situations, that led the ACT Magistrates Court and Guide Dogs ACT to launch the Canine Court Companion
Every week for a few hours, a guide dog and its handler walk through the court complex to provide support to children, victims, witnesses and other court users.
Guide Dogs ACT spokesperson and dog handler, Nikki Toohey, says the company of a dog is helping to reduce anxiety levels of court users.
“When the dog is present the people that are attending court are more amicable and less likely to be aggressive to court staff members,” she says.
“It also reduces stress and anxiety for court users, particularly those in remote witness or vulnerable witness areas.”
Leading the pack in ICU treatment
Back at Canberra Hospital, ICU Clinical Consultant, Carly Thornburgh, says even though the research project is in its early stages, there is no looking back.
Therapy dogs are being used in other wards throughout the hospital and other hospitals around Australia have enquired about the program and how it came to be.
While the results of the ICU experiment won’t be known in late 2020, the program has potential beyond the instant benefits that come from patting and cuddling a dog.
“Intensive care patients are particularly vulnerable to PTSD,” Ms Thornburgh says. “It would be interesting to see patients who have initially had an interaction with therapy animals and their levels of PTSD years later.”
In the ICU ward, nurse Claire and Harry the cocker spaniel have just walked over to a patient’s bed. Her name is Lisa. She is bed-bound and connected to numerous devices to help her breathe.
The past few months in the ICU have been extremely tough on Lisa and her family but when she sees Harry, her eyes light up.
For a brief moment, Lisa’s critical condition is forgotten among the patting, laughing and smiling as Harry provides an escape from the harsh reality of being in the ICU.