Pet Therapy

Pet therapy and dementia:
Study reinforces the phrase "man's best friend"

By Grant Milne

The following is an Interview with Ann-Marie Wordley, a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide. Her research deals with the effects that animal assisted therapy have on dementia patients in a senior housing atmosphere.

SNAPforSeniors: Could you provide a bit of background on who you are and what you do?

Anne-Marie Wordley: I'm currently completing my PhD in the School of Psychology in the University of Adelaide, which is in South Australia. My thesis has investigated animal assisted therapy, or pet therapy, for people with dementia living in residential care facilities. I'm aiming to submit my thesis in February or March of next year, and I get my interest in the animals from my passion and love of animals, my cat's actually sitting on my lap at the moment (laughs).

I've also worked with elderly people. After I finished my undergraduate studies in psychology, I went to London for a year and found myself working with elderly people in the community.

SFS: Sounds interesting. Can you please tell us a bit more about what animal assisted therapy entails?

AMW: Animal assisted therapy, or AAT, involves therapy with animals. In my study we had volunteer dog handlers with dogs who where suitable for the nursing home environment. They had been temperament tested to make sure they OK around wheelchairs and walkers and that sort of thing. I used two volunteers, along with a golden retriever and two border collies to administer therapy as part of my research program.

We ran one hour animal assisted therapy sessions twice a week for the six week intervention program, and the activity therapist at the nursing home was present at the time, plus the volunteer dog handlers and the dog or dogs. During the session, the residents were able to pet and interact with the dog as the handler walked them around the group, and we'd also do one-on-ones where the dogs would jump up on the couch or chair next to them, and sort of get to their level if they weren't able to come to the dog.

SFS: Can you go a bit more in-depth into the research itself?

AMW: In just a snapshot of the research, it was essentially a 22 week trial of animal assisted therapy in a South Australian residential care facility. The trial consisted of a four-week baseline period to asses where the residents started before therapy and a six-week intervention period which is where we administered therapy. These were followed by a six-week follow-up period in which we monitored the resident's without administering therapy, and a separate six-week control study. Prior to the trial, we did exploratory interviews with nursing home residents, and then follow up interviews after the studies with staff and resident families. No one who was previously determined to be afraid of dogs or allergic to dogs was included in the research.

SFS: How about a brief overview of the findings?

AMW: We used the revised memory and behavior problem checklist to measure the effects of therapy. The checklist provides three subscales: memory problems, disruptive behavior and depression. I also added an additional subscale called pro-social behavior, which includes items like smiling, laughing and eye contact, these sorts of positive social behaviors and communications that often people with dementia don't display. We wanted to see if AAT would have an effect, not only on what is looked at as negative, or problem behaviors, but also on positive behaviors.

What we found was that in the intervention, the pro-social behavior increased substantially and was maintained during follow-up. So it appears that when we stopped the AAT those effects seemed to stay on, at least for the six-week follow-up period.

When we looked at memory problems; in the baseline period they were quite high, and then went down substantially during intervention. They increased slightly from that point in the follow-up, but not to the level of baseline. We observed similar results with disruptive behavior.

We conducted a control in which the same volunteers came in without the dogs because we wanted to see if it was simply having, you know, an interesting person visit, or whether the dog was actually making a unique contribution to the effects we were seeing. When we took the dogs out of the equation, pro-social behavior was about half what it was with the dogs. Memory problems also decreased when we had the dogs. So we found that the dogs were adding something, it wasn't just a nice person coming in and having a chat, which is something a lot of studies haven't looked at.

SFS: So what do these results mean for families, caregivers and the individuals with dementia themselves?

AMW: I think that these sorts of findings seem to offer an alternative therapy for people with dementia, who perhaps haven't responded to other types of therapies. I've worked a lot with families and small changes are huge for them. So anything that gets a response from a loved one with dementia, even if it's a smile or eye contact, is really big.

For professionals, any reduction in challenging behavior problems is a plus, because it makes their lives so much easier. It's good all around for all people involved.

SFS: And it's not expensive or drug-intensive like most other options.

AMW: That's right, because often the alternatives are drug therapies, so it's good to see a non-drug intervention that can have such strong effects.

SFS: Are there any stories you can share about someone who benefited uniquely from therapy?

AMW: There was one lady with very severe dementia, probably the worst in the nursing home. She was just in her own world, she didn't communicate with anyone. She was often making almost barking type noises, but not in a way that was interactive. This particular lady took a liking to one of the volunteers and her two very striking black and white border collies. I hypothesized that her reaction had something to do with color, because she didn't seem to react the same with the other dogs.

Her reaction was quite amazing. In interviews with the staff and family, we learned that they never got a response from this particular lady, but when we introduced her to the dogs she was actually petting them and making eye contact with the volunteer. If you know someone with that severe level of dementia, you know to see those sorts of reactions is quite amazing. When we told her daughter, she was very excited, saying "oh my God! Mom was actually doing that?" That was one of the highlights; it was almost miraculous I guess.

SFS: So where do you proceed from here with your research?

AMW: Well, I have to finish this PHD thesis (laughs), so that's the first plan! I'm also presenting at another conference in Italy, which is an animal welfare conference, so I've done the [Alzheimer's Association Dementia Care Conference], and now looking at the animal side of my research. What we're looking at there is hopefully fusing an adoption organization with nursing homes, so if there are animals that need homes (so we don't have to put them down) and we can place them with residents who can benefit so much from their company. So I don't really know exactly where we're going from here, but I think there's a lot of interest in the research.

SFS: Well it certainly seems like you have some very promising results so far. Thank you very much for your time and good luck with your research in the future.

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