Study to determine whether puppy love can heal

Up to 200 dogs will be part of a clinical trial at five children\'s hospitals to determine how animal therapy affects children diagnosed with cancer. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

WASHINGTON – Dogs have a well-established reputation of being man’s best friend. A new study could find them to be a child’s healer, as well.

The Canines and Childhood Cancer Study is the first of its kind, analyzing the effect of animal-assisted therapy on young children diagnosed with cancer.

“It’s so important to bring evidence-based science and rigorous data to what we already know is in our hearts,” says Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of the American Humane Association.

She says children will be enrolled during the next 15 months, and the study will review the child-animal bond.

Health professionals and animal lovers have myriad anecdotal stories that the study will attempt to quantify in data.

“With a therapy dog visit, our young cancer patients stop being patients and become children again,” says Stephanie Cooper Greenberg, who is part of a therapy dog team at Johns Hopkins. “[They provide] a much-needed break from the crushing demands of treatments, tests and infusions.”

Five children’s hospitals — none of which is in the Washington area — will collect data in the clinical trial.

“Studies like Canines and Childhood Cancer are really vital to providing the evidence, the evidence-based medicine that’s going to help us to improve public health,” says Deborah Linder, the principal investigator for the trial in Massachusetts.

In addition to the cancer patients, the study will also consider the impact on parents or caregivers, the health care workers plus the dog and its handler.

As many as 200 therapy dogs could be involved in the study.

“It really looks at the efficacy in a clinical trial situation of using animal- assisted therapy for kids with cancer,” Ganzert says.

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