The woman runs the brush along the back of the Australian shepherd, gently stroking the dog’s fur.
In another setting, she carefully snaps a collar on a different dog, attaches a leash and stands up as the dog’s tail wags expectantly.
Just an owner and her pets, right?
Nope. Not her pets, her therapy.
UTC’s David Levine and Janice Ryan are conducting research into physical and mental rehabilitation that includes animals but goes beyond the well-known service and therapy dogs. From what they have discovered — or not discovered — their study may be the first of its kind worldwide.
Service dogs help those with disabilities such as blindness, seizures and other physical issues. Therapy dogs can provide affection, attention and comfort to those in such places as hospitals and nursing homes.
Levine and Ryan’s study, in its very initial stages, looks at different issues in a two-pronged design. On his side, Levine says it’s to see whether using animals will make physical rehabilitation easier for patients who’ve had a stroke or brain injury.
“They might be doing something with a dog like brushing it or taking a collar on and off to work on a fine motor skill,” explains Levine, a professor and Walter M. Cline Chair of Excellence in the Department of Physical Therapy. “We’re using the animal as kind of a partner in the rehab.”
For Ryan, an assistant professor in the Doctorate of Occupational Therapy program, the goal is to see whether the animals can reduce the stress felt by people with PTSD, dementia or autism, among other things. Even when they’re dealing with the tasks of day-to-day, stress can overwhelm them, she says.
“I have plans for this that go into looking at something called ‘cortisol level,’” says Ryan. “When we’re stressed, cortisol increases in our body, a nervous system response to stress.”
Her “passion,” she says, is “finding any system that reduces that stress.”
When the idea for the study was first considered, Levine went online to see if similar research had been done and generated resources they might use. No go.
“There really were no resources readily available,” he says, so the decision was made to create their own.
“A lot of people think that animal-assisted therapy is great, but nobody has been able to prove anything and so much of it is anecdotal,” Ryan adds.
The study has started with a set of videos made by UTC videographers and showing patients — student actors, actually — doing various exercises with dogs. The plan is to post the videos on the web for free, giving other animal-assisted therapy experts the chance to view them and perhaps use what they see in their own therapy programs.
“If someone in Taiwan wants to look at using animal-assisted therapy, they can just go to this YouTube website and get ideas of how to incorporate animals into therapy,” Levine says.
Contact information for the experts is being pulled from journals, books and other materials, Ryan says. Surveys will be sent to them with the hope that they’ll return their thoughts on which exercises should be used for which therapy goal.
“We’re giving them options like fine motor skills, bilateral coordination, balance, postural control,” Ryan says. “The biggest thing right now is just getting it set up so that we get enough data back that shows which exercise works best for what goals.”
At the same time, however, Levine and Ryan hope the experts also will make suggestions, ask questions and report on how the therapy worked for them.
“This study allows us to have a consensus of experts so we have a better idea of even what to research,” Ryan says. “As we get data back from these experts we can potentially start thinking: ‘OK, let’s research this and that.”
One of the research angles is to determine whether animals help those in rehab with their physical therapy, Levine says. Traditional rehab exercises “might not be something you’re doing in real life,” he explains.
An everyday activity such as petting a dog may make rehab more fun than the usual exercises to re-establish balance or strengthen arms and legs. And if it’s more fun, the patient may be more willing to do it on a regular basis, he says.
Feeding treats to the dog, for instance, can help retrain muscles used in rotating the torso. Trying to buckle a collar while standing may help with balance and also the ability to follow a sequence of tasks.
Currently, the web videos are geared to physical therapy but in the fall new videos will be made to engage occupational therapy and psychology students, Ryan says. But the OT and PT elements of the study can overlap, she adds.
“As stress reduces, muscles relax, which helps with balance and posture,” she says.
“If a person has a real limited range of things that they feel comfortable doing, and you’re giving them something that feels challenging and empowering and they’re able to work through it, that emotional pattern carries over into the rest of their lives.”