A person hugging a dog. They are sitting down against a pink background.

How Can a Furry Friend Help During an ER Visit?

The emergency room is a stressful place for patients. But a new study shows therapy dogs can help with anxiety, and even with pain.


Emergency room visits can be stressful, but according to a new study, a visit with a therapy dog may be just what the doctor ordered. Just 10 minutes spent with a dog in the emergency room was enough to reduce patients’ anxiety, depression, and pain.

The study was supervised by Colleen Dell, a University of Saskatchewan Research Chair and co-founder of the PAWS Your Stress program, and James Stempien, the provincial head of Emergency Medicine. It was published in PLOS ONE.

In recent years, therapy dogs have become an increasingly popular method of reducing stress in settings ranging from university campuses to retirement homes. While many studies have documented the positive effects of interacting with therapy dogs, Dell and Stempien wanted to investigate whether they might also help in the high-stress environment of a hospital emergency room.

“The Emergency Room is a hectic place, and as an ER doctor myself, I know that anything we can do to improve the patient experience is welcomed,” Stempien said in a press release.

To learn more, the team brought certified therapy dogs to the University of Saskatchewan’s Royal University Hospital Emergency Department. They surveyed patients about their pain, anxiety, depression, and general well-being before and after spending ten minutes with the dogs.

The researchers also surveyed patients from a control group who visited the emergency department on days when the dogs weren’t present.

Overall, the team found that spending ten minutes with the dogs improved patient outcomes in all areas they surveyed. Nearly 50% of patients reported a reduction in their anxiety, while depression, pain, and general well-being improved by 46%, 43%, and 41% respectively.

The researchers hope that their findings will be used to help patients deal with stressful emergency room visits. Their findings on patient pain are particularly useful, as roughly 80% of emergency room visits are pain-related. They believe that visiting with a therapy dog distracts patients from their pain, which in turn reduces their perception of that pain.

Therapy dogs are also important as an intervention that doesn’t require medicine. This could be particularly useful for triage nurses, who will have fewer patients requiring immediate pain relief.

“The findings of this study contribute important knowledge towards the potential value of emergency department therapy dogs to affect patients’ experience of pain, and related measures of anxiety, depression, and well-being,” Dell said.

“This is the first controlled trial of its kind in Canada — and elsewhere as far as we know.”

In Saskatchewan, therapy dog visits — including visits at online events — can be requested through the PAWS Your Stress program.

For more information, watch a video on the team’s findings below.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.