More doctors bringing on four-legged partners

While therapy dogs have long been used to cheer up patients holed up at hospitals and nursing homes, a small number of private practitioners have begun realizing the benefits of having 'canine therapy assistants' work with them right in the office, the Wall Street Journal reports.

And although the movement is being led by psychologists and other therapists, medical doctors also are increasingly putting their pups to work. In New York plastic surgeon Janis Di Pietro's office, for example, Lacey, part golden retriever, part spaniel, entertains patients in the waiting room, taking their minds off of the procedures they are about to undergo. Meanwhile, New York neurologist Gayatri Devi gives Lola and Wolfie, mutts aged three and 17, an even more active role in treating elderly patients with memory disorders. "Coming to this office can be unnerving for dementia patients, but when they see a dog, it's disarming. They feel comforted and safe," she says.

Research shows that a few minutes of stroking a pet dog decreases cortisol, the stress hormone, in both the human and the dog. It also increases prolactin and oxytocin, hormones that govern nurturing and security, as well as serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that boost mood. The animals' natural intuition for sensing stress in humans can also help doctors detect depression in patients, some therapists say.

While there are no set requirements for having an animal assistant, most dogs who work with doctors have been trained in obedience and as therapy dogs, the newspaper notes. Temperament is more important than any particular breed, says Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the School of Medicine Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. For instance, dogs that are highly energetic, territorial or demanding could be disruptive to a practice.

Doctors who practice with dogs must also be considerate of patients who are allergic to or fearful of animals by informing them of dogs' presence before the visit and putting the animals elsewhere for part of the day, if necessary.

To learn more:
- read the article in the Wall Street Journal