The use of animals in animal-assisted therapy and support from e.g. service dogs have the potential to become an important supplement as an aid to vulnerable people, as well as in the treatment of patients with psychiatric diagnoses. In Denmark, the implementation of visiting dogs in nursing homes has increased significantly in the last decade, after it has become possible for nursing homes throughout the country to receive regular visits from volunteer dog owners and their approved visiting dogs.
Another trend is Green Care or Care Farming, which offers nature-based services for vulnerable groups of people, where contact with animals is a key element. In addition, the use of service dogs for e.g. war veterans as well as horse-assisted therapy are on the rise.
Despite an increasing number of studies suggesting that animal-assisted therapy is a good treatment supplement for several patient groups, there is a lack of solid scientific evidence for the positive effects of animals on humans. In addition, there is almost no knowledge of the connections and mechanisms behind these reported effects.
Purpose: Therefore, in a new project ANIMAL CONTACT, led by Karen Thodberg, work must be done to identify the very basic responses in people when they are in contact with animals - more specifically, dogs. Furthermore, it must be investigated what types of effect measures can be used in practice in connection with therapy sessions.
Method: The project consists of two parts:
- In the first part of the project, work will be done with healthy test persons in a standardized experimental setup, where the persons are exposed to dog contact with different intensities - both in terms of eye contact, possibility of touch, and other physical interaction with the dog. After this, the persons must be tested in either relaxing, stressful or physically demanding situations, where interaction with the dog is part of the test situation, but where the persons themselves choose how much they want to interact with the dog. In this way, researchers are given the opportunity to compare a range of physiological, psychometric (eg goals for depression, anxiety, personality type) and behavioral biology goals in a homogeneous group of people and acquire basic knowledge. The physiological goals that the researchers will collect are i.a. persons' blood pressure, heart rate and saliva samples for measuring the hormones cortisol and oxytocin. Using wireless equipment, the persons' so-called "galvanic skin response" is also measured. The latter is a measure of emotional response, and is known i.a. from lie detectors.
- The project includes two case studies - partly with nursing home residents and partly with war veterans: 1) The first case study measures (based on the parameters that are found suitable in the initial experimental setup) the physiological and behavioral responses of nursing home residents who receive visits with and without dog. Here, the residents' reactions to contact with a visiting dog are identified. 2) In the second case study, the selected measurement parameters are used to examine the effect of a service dog's presence in war veterans with PTSD (post traumatic stress diagnosis) - both in challenging and non-challenging situations - ie. with high and low stress loads. Here, goals for physical activity will also be included, and in this part of the experiment there will also be a special focus on the dog's reactions. In all phases of the project, psychological and psychometric data are collected on the trial participants - both to understand how contact with animals affects these goals, but also to gain knowledge about whether humans' mental state affects their response to contact with dogs.
The project also has a number of collaborators, including The Military Veterans Center, TrygFonden and the participating nursing homes.
Result: By identifying any connections between contact with animals and humans' immediate responses, one can obtain the knowledge that is much needed in this field of research. In addition, one can identify the relationship between the immediate effects as well as long-term effects in groups of people with disorders of various kinds. With this, the project provides both knowledge and techniques to clarify which treatment elements have the greatest effect in a therapeutic context. The project can contribute to the further development of animal-assisted therapy, as well as other types of help from animals, on a solid scientific basis. This can benefit many vulnerable people and patients with psychiatric diagnoses.
Foundations that supports the project: