MARQUETTE – The word is out: dogs are more than our best friends. Helen Kahn, professor of communication disorders at Northern Michigan University, set out to document why animal-assisted therapy works, specifically in speech-language pathology. Her findings are definitely something to bark about.

“This research could apply to any type of therapy in general,” Kahn said. “People are really interested in how animals impact us. Using animals in therapy is not a new concept, but it is only now beginning to be scientifically documented and supported. My goal, then, is not to prove it works, but to see how it works through the study of communication between a therapist and a patient in both regular and animal-assisted therapy (AAT) sessions.”

One of the most prominent figures to tout the benefits of animal use in the health profession was Florence Nightingale. She observed that pets were beneficial companions for her chronically ill patients. Even today, stories of animals helping the injured recover and the disabled overcome make national news.

Kahn received a faculty grant from Northern in early 2002 to study the effects of animals in sessions of speech-pathology therapy.

“We use dogs in our research, though there are individuals who work with cats,” Kahn said, “Dogs are just instantly loyal and eager to please – they make the perfect companion during the sometimes-difficult therapy sessions. Regardless of what animal is used, however, we’re finding that AAT works on numerous levels and that therapeutic progress occurs more rapidly with AAT than when animals are not used.”

In KahnÂ’s research, a specific patient is paired with a specific dog during his/her AAT sessions and the patient, therapist, and dog handler each give feedback. During another therapy session, the dog and the dog handler are removed, but feedback from

patient and therapist is still recorded. Each session is filmed. Kahn and her research

assistants transcribe each film, noting the conversational utterances and non-verbal cues. These are coded according to a list of communication acts and further analyzed, producing data that can be analyzed, graphed and studied.

The use of the dog varies according to patientsÂ’ needs and desires, Kahn said. Sometimes patients hold small dogs on their laps for comfort. In other sessions, a dog may fetch a ball at a patientÂ’s command, or only come to the patient when he or she says the dog's name.

“We’re still in the process of analyzing all the data,” Kahn said. “We compare the AAT sessions to sessions where there is no AAT. Those sessions without AAT are the "control" sessions, which allow us to make a comparison. I don't know of any other controlled research concerning this hypothesis, and so our preliminary results are pleasing.”

Still, Kahn is well aware of the critics of AAT. “Traditional circles still think the concept of AAT is a novelty,” Kahn said. “But they miss the point that this is directed intervention with certified and experienced therapists and dog handlers. While every patient responds to animals for numerous, individual reasons, it is hard to deny that humans form a bond with animals and that animals even seem to reciprocate this bond back to their human counterparts.”

Kahn also notes that during AAT, a patientÂ’s physical anxiety goes down, measured by lower blood pressure and heart rate. And less patient stress almost always equals a more productive session.

“AAT doesn’t replace rehabilitative therapy; it augments it,” Kahn said. “Similar arguments have been made concerning other complementary and alternative medicines. But in AAT, I think we can take the concept of complementary medicine a step further, allowing a patient to benefit from working with a warm-bodied friend. "In our age of managed health care, this should be important to get the patients out of therapy faster while producing good treatment outcome. That is what everyone involved in the therapy process wants – the patient most of all.”

Prepared By
Ryan Sjoholm