Effects of a therapy dog program on the wellbeing of older veterans living in a long term care residence

Colleen Anne Dell1, Darlene Chalmers2, James Gillett3, Megan Steeves4, Betty Rohr5, Barbara Fornssler6, Alicia Husband4, Oluwatomisin Iwajomo4, Chelsea Nickel6
1 University of Saskatchewan, Department of Sociology & School of Public Health
2 University of Regina, Faculty of Social Work
3 McMaster University, Department of Health, Aging & Society
4 University of Saskatchewan, School of Public Health
5 University of Saskatchewan, Faculty of Medicine
6 University of Saskatchewan, Department of Sociology

Current health care practices do not adequately meet the health needs of older adult war veterans. Increasingly, animal assisted interventions (AAIs) are being identified as potentially beneficial for this population. To explore this, this study, informed by a One Health framework, measured the outcomes of the St. John Ambulance (SJA) Therapy Dog Program on the wellbeing of older adults at a Veterans Affairs Canada residence in Saskatchewan, Canada. Over a 13 week period, two groups of veterans, of 8 and 10 in number respectively, who were living at the residence were purposively selected to participate in weekly individual and group therapy dog visits. The type of visit varied according to the level of cognition of the veteran, with lower level individuals visiting in a group format. A modified instrumental case study design was applied incorporating both quantitative and qualitative approaches, including questionnaires, focus groups, case history, and observation. Quantitative measures were analyzed descriptively, and qualitative measures were analyzed thematically. The findings revealed a positive influence of therapy dogs on memory recollection and reminiscence among veterans; positive health impacts on veteran wellbeing as understood through the significance of the therapy dog team encounter; and, perceived meaningful support from the therapy dog handlers and love and support from the therapy dogs. The analysis is contextualized within the growing literature on AAIs and contributes important insights to adequately meeting the needs of older adult war veterans, and potentially for the increasing population of recent war veterans. Additionally, key policy, practice, and research recommendations are proposed, including further investigation of therapy dog visits.

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