The Therapy Dog Will See You Now

November 2017 Vol 8, No 11
Laura Galindez, MSW, LSW
Heather Sheaffer, DSW, LCSW

Background: Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a supportive therapy that is currently underutilized in the outpatient oncology setting. AAT has been used to provide support for cancer patients, but a review of the literature indicates that little has been done using AAT to focus on oncology providers. Working in oncology has many rewards, but it can also be challenging and stressful. Oncology providers have a burnout rate of 44.7% related to the emotional exhaustion and volume of patients receiving care. The Abramson Cancer Center wanted to develop programs to address staff burnout and boost morale. In 2016, we evaluated our current supportive care programs and developed an AAT program focusing on oncology providers. We hypothesized that this program would help reduce provider stress and promote well-being in our Patient and Family Services (PFS) staff.

Objectives: The main goal of the program was to use AAT to provide staff support. The program had to be fun, offering oncology providers a way to relax and de-stress during the day. A future goal is to expand the AAT to patients in the cancer center to again provide a bit of respite in an emotionally challenging setting.

Methods: In 2014, the PFS took ownership of developing an AAT program. PFS first reviewed and adapted the inpatient AAT policy. A plan was then developed to roll out our program in the outpatient setting, including a naming contest that yielded the program title: “De-Stress with Darla Days.” One of the nurse navigators trained her dog to become a certified therapy dog (Darla). Darla comes “to work” on specific days each week. Providers are made aware of her schedule. She makes “rounds” and has office hours where staff can come by for a visit and some downtime. Initially, 35 staff completed a survey measuring the impact of Darla’s visit on their stress level. Qualitative surveys were given to providers, asking their stress levels before and after a visit with Darla, and were asked to describe their experience with the therapy dog. Survey results have been very positive, with staff reporting a decrease in stress and an overall feeling of well-being after a visit from Darla. Staff reported a pre-visit stress level of 4 or 5, with 5 being the highest. Stress level decreased to 1 or 2 after Darla’s visit.

Conclusion: There has been an overwhelming response to our program. Darla has provided a lot of support and boosts morale every time she is here with her bright and engaging personality. Staff comments include “She brings happiness to my day,” “She always makes me feel better and has a calming effect,” and “She is a wonderful addition to our staff.” Other comments include “I look forward to coming to work when I can see Darla.” Our program has been so well received that we are looking to expand our AAT program with the hope of having a therapy dog here every day. We plan to expand the program to include patient visitation in the clinic waiting areas as new AAT pets join our staff, supervised by the PFS department.


Barker SB, Kinsley JS, McCain NL, Best AM. Measuring stress and immune response in healthcare professionals following interaction with a therapy dog: a pilot study. Psychol Rep. 2005;96(3 Pt 1):713-729.
Jones MC, Wells M, Gao C, et al. Work stress and well-being in oncology settings: a multidisciplinary study of health care professionals. Psychooncology. 2013;22:46-53.
Nimer J, Lundahl B. Animal-assisted therapy: a meta-analysis. Anthrozoös. 2007;20(3):225-238.
Shanafelt T, Dyrbye L. Oncologist burnout: causes, consequences, and responses. J Clin Oncol. 2012;30:1235-1241.

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