Study tests whether dog visits can ease stress of young cancer patients

A group of young patients at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is part of a nationwide study that examines the effects of animal-assisted therapy on patients, their families and therapy dogs.

UC Davis is one of the five children’s hospitals participating in the 12-month clinical trial and the only one in California, said Dr. Anjali Pawar, a UC Davis oncologist. The center started participating in the Canines and Childhood Cancer study in February. The study is funded by the American Humane Association.

Children are enrolled in the program within one month of being diagnosed with cancer so researchers can assess their stress levels before they react to the treatments, Pawar said. Each patient involved in the trial is between the ages of 3 and 17. The patient and a family member typically visit the cancer center once a week for chemotherapy treatment.

“If there’s any way we could decrease the stress levels for them and their families, that’ll be a huge accomplishment,” she said.

Four children are being studied throughout a four-month period, said Briga Mullin, a research assistant at UC Davis. Two kids are paired with a therapy dog from Lend-a-Heart, a volunteer animal-assisted therapy program, while the others undergo cancer treatments without a canine companion.

The kids’ and parents’ stress levels are evaluated by a survey conducted at every session, monthly in-depth sessions and by body language analysis, Mullin said. There are two camcorders in the treatment room to assist with gathering data.

Researchers collect saliva samples from the dog and test them for cortisol, a stress hormone, Pawar said. The videos are analyzed to see if their behavior indicates any stress signs.

In the first six months of testing at UC Davis, researchers have seen “a remarkable reduction in stress” among the kids who were visited by dogs, Pawar said. But she said more children need to be studied before researchers can draw any conclusions. UC Davis will participate in the study until February, and will enroll more patients.

Ayden Gettler, 7, is one of the UC Davis patients enrolled in the dog study. He was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and visits the hospital weekly for chemotherapy treatments. Ringo, a 3-year-old black Labrador retriever, brings a wide smile to Ayden’s face.

“When he’s in the chair getting his treatment, the dog goes up to him or puts his head in his lap,” said Ayden’s father, Jered Gettler, 32, of Grass Valley. “He gets excited about it.”

Ringo’s weekly visits have eased Ayden’s pre-chemotherapy jitters, said his mother, Alicia Gettler, 38.

“It gives him something to look forward to and it makes him less stressed,” she said.

Patt Hull, 66, of Sacramento and Ringo visit the center at least three times a month through the Lend-a-Heart program, Hull said. She has given a few photos of Ringo to Ayden, which are displayed next to his bed at home.

As a young pup, Ringo was trained to be a service dog by Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization based in Santa Rosa that trains assistance dogs, she said. A bad hip held Ringo back from pursuing his career as a CCI dog, but Hull knew he could shine as a therapy dog.

“He has such good ingredients to be a therapy dog,” Hull said. “He’s kind of doing what he was meant to do.”

Ayden pets Ringo, brushes him, and takes him on short walks in the hospital. As Hull prepared to leave with Ringo on Tuesday, Ayden turned to her and asked, “When am I going to see Ringo again?”

There is large community of CCI-trained dogs and owners in the Sacramento region, said Laurie Kern, 59, of Carmichael. She works with four CCI-trained Labrador retrievers – Nala, Samma, Jerry and Wesley.

Only 30 percent of CCI dogs graduate as service dogs from the program, Kern said. Many of them go on to become therapy dogs and family pets.

“With all the hard work and time they invested in it, they like when the dogs still serve people,” she said. “It’s kind of a natural fit. The breeding and disposition tends to make them great therapy dogs.”

Like many other animal-assisted therapy volunteers, Kern and her dogs visit a number of different hospitals, such as Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California and Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, and senior assisted living facilities in the region, she said.

Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, is home to two CCI-certified-service dogs, Millie and Marty, said Jennifer Johnson, a certified child life specialist at Sutter. The two yellow Labrador retrievers are a part of the Facility Dog Program.

Johnson and Millie work in the pediatrics department together, where they help children cope with hospitalization.

“Millie is the first smile that we will get out of anybody when they’re hospitalized,” Johnson said.

Johnson said former patients sometimes say that all they remember of their treatment is Millie.

Although the Canines and Childhood Cancer study won’t be completed until next year, health professionals at UC Davis hope the study supports the hypothesis that animal-assisted therapy aids patients.

“Animal-assisted therapy and children are like cereal and milk – they go together,” Pawar said.