Therapy dogs comfort patients at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center


A couple of Thursdays a month, Brian Roberge has a date with Dixie and his wife doesn’t even mind.

“It’s comforting; it’s just nice to see her,” Roberge said. “The only complaint is the dog likes my wife better than likes me.”

Roberge is on his way to beating metastatic melanoma and Dixie, a British Labrador therapy dog, has been part of the journey at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

The Roberge family lost their border collie last year, but their Pekingese Meeko is always ready to comfort Brian when he gets home from his immunotherapy cancer treatments.
“It’s like family here and there, and Meeko is just part of it,” Roberge said.

Laura Meadors brings Dixie to Vanderbilt about once a week.

“It melts your heart to see the reaction, and it takes their mind off whatever they’re going through,” Meadors said. “A lot of them are missing their dogs and they just want to love on a dog for a little bit. It distracts (them) from what (they’re) going through.” 

Therapy dogs visit patients of all ages, but Vanderbilt researchers are studying the effects they have on children fighting cancer and their families.

“The first child in the study said, ‘I look forward to seeing Swoosh so much and I don’t have to take that pill.’ That pill was Ativan because he was so anxious about coming to the hospital,” said Mary Jo Gilmer, Ph.D., MBA, PNP-BC.  “In this day of concerns about health care costs, if we can avoid one medication for a child who’s taking 20 medications for his cancer, that’s something. That’s significant.”

Dr. Mary Jo Gilmer is a professor of nursing and medicine at Vanderbilt. She was the principal investigator on the study that took place at five hospitals, including Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital. 

“Visiting the dog decreased the anxiety of the parents, which was statistically significant,” Gilmer said. “We know there is reciprocity between kids and parents, and children feel the stress of their parents.”

Outside of a clinical setting, most people with pets are convinced their pets make them happier and healthier and there is research to back that up.  The National Institutes of Health cite studies that show pets lower stress hormone levels and blood pressure. They also keep their owners active and provide emotional support.

“Dogs have intuition, an innate sense of what is going on with a person,” Gilmer said. “We know they can provide unconditional love.”

Pets are there during the happiest times in life and the toughest. 

“They’re doing a great job (at Vanderbilt), but it’s still always cancer. Dixie coming by just kinda says everything is okay,” Roberge said.

Gilmer and the rest of the Pediatric Palliative Care research team at Vanderbilt are now conducting a second study to see how therapy dogs affect children who have had cancer for a longer period of time.
April 30 is National Therapy Animal Day. 

Thursday is National Pet Day and we have a Petpalooza of special reports. We’ll explore new dog parks, cat cafes, pet therapy, and help you cut your vet bill. Thursday in every newscast.

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