Twice a month, a special parade marches through the hallways of Corewell Health’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

It always happens on Tuesdays. And the parade marchers are always of the four-legged variety. All along the parade route, faces light up at the sight of it.

“Not just the children,” Shari Duthler said. “The faces of nurses and staff all light up, too. You can hear them calling out, ‘It’s dog day!’”

Duthler, office coordinator and primary contact for West Michigan Therapy Dogs, has worked with Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to bring therapy dogs into the world of patients.

Grand Haven resident Sara Bergman, 17, pets Bullet, a 6-year-old Doberman Pinscher, as he lays in her bed during the West Michigan Therapy Dogs visit at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.
Therapy dogs visit emergency departments, hospital libraries, activity rooms and more at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. (Taylor Ballek | Corewell Health Beat)

They visit emergency departments, hospital libraries, activity rooms and more, always with a goal to help calm and cheer young patients.

West Michigan Therapy Dogs was established in 2001.

“We currently have 170 handlers and 200 dogs in our program,” Duthler said. “Many are rescues and they range from a 3-pound Yorkie to a 170-pound Great Dane.

“The dogs are trained to give comfort and not be disturbed by, well, anything.”

That means the dogs do a great job in many different environments, where any variety of stimuli might vie for their attention.

Dogs used in pet therapy, Duthler said, are chosen for their easy-going personalities. They then go through extensive training along with their handlers, who are also their owners.

A recent study, titled “Effects of contact with a dog on prefrontal brain activity: A controlled trial,” published in Plos One, indicates that live human-animal therapy interactions may boost cognitive and emotional activity in the brain.

“Even just the presence of the dogs cheers people,” said Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, pediatric psychologist with Corewell Health behavioral health and neurosciences. “You can see demeanor in children as well as adults change instantly.”

She said her team even observes the calming effect of pets in teletherapy sessions.

Calming pet presence

“You can watch the effect on their monitors,” Duthler said. “The blood pressure and heart rates come right down and the smiles come out.”

The Plos One study shows benefits of animal-assisted therapy extends to nervous system conditions, such as strokes, seizure disorders, brain trauma and infections.

While the study used only dogs, Dr. Cadieux said, “We have observed the positive effects with most any type of animal, even hamsters, lizards, cats, horses, all kinds.”

Each animal has its own qualities and different patients might connect to a different animal.”

Researchers in the study used a portable brain scanner to measure changes in the brain, especially the frontal cortex, when humans interacted with dogs. The scanners measured changes in oxygen saturation of the blood in the brain.

Brain stimulation rose as the dogs came nearer to the human participant and intensified when the person petted the dog.

The frontal cortex of the brain area is involved in executive functions such as attention, memory, and problem-solving. But it is also involved in social and emotional processes.

“When we bring our dogs into the emergency department at Helen DeVos (Children’s Hospital), we might see children who have attempted suicide,” Duthler said. “The handlers are trained not to say anything. It’s not our business.”

They let the dogs approach the children and the kids often bury their faces in the dog’s fur, she said.

“The dogs don’t judge—they bring unconditional love,” Duthler said.

Paws on fear

Duthler said the positive response becomes evident even in children who have been afraid of dogs. Handlers turn the dogs around so that the children don’t have to face the dog’s mouth with all those scary teeth.

“They might pet the tail end first, until they become comfortable,” Duthler said. “Then soon they are petting the whole dog. They get over their fear. We see it again and again.”

Duthler said the dogs are also used with young patients who resist taking medication or are in pain. The dog remains by the side of the child for as long as two hours.

“It might take that long, but then we see the child stop resisting the meds and take them,” she said. “We have the best gig in the world. The handlers and I feel like we get more than we give.”

The new study adds to a growing body of research on pet therapy, showing positive results in terms of limb dexterity; improvement in social functioning and interaction; reductions in stress, anxiety, and loneliness; and improved balance.