Study examines how man’s best friend can help therapy patients improve

The research team will measure physical-based outcomes as well as emotional-based outcomes from the therapy.
Video by: UAB Visual Content


University of Alabama at Birmingham psychologist David Schwebel, Ph.D., is partnering with Hand in Paw to study the role therapy dogs may have in improving a patient’s overall outcome from physical or occupational therapy.

Schwebel, who typically focuses his research on child injury prevention in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences, says his work began with Hand in Paw when he started researching and developing programs for dog bite prevention.

“That’s how I first connected with Hand in Paw,” Schwebel said. “While we were working together on that initiative, the organization approached me with interest in understanding whether the therapy they already were doing in hospitals such as UAB was actually helping the patients.”

Hand in Paw, a Birmingham-based nonprofit organization, sends professionally trained volunteers along with dogs in animal-assisted therapy teams to help people in area hospitals, schools, nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities.

“We are very passionate about the work we do and believe we make a lasting impact on those we visit. This project and partnership with UAB provides an important opportunity to advocate for the benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy.”

“We are very passionate about the work we do and believe we make a lasting impact on those we visit,” said Laura Cardwell, executive director of Hand in Paw. “This project and partnership with UAB provides an important opportunity to advocate for the benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy."

The dedicated team is led by UAB’s Denise Graham, an occupational therapy manager, and Hand in Paw’s Joan Stelling. Stelling, a Hand in Paw board member, is the research coordinator for the project and is a retired Spain Rehab spinal cord injury specialist and UAB administrator.

Hand in Paw works in a variety of ways with UAB. The most widespread, according to Cardwell, is the Petscription program.

“Petscription is our feel-good program, but it’s also goal-directed therapy,” Cardwell said. “We actually engage our animals with the patients to do their therapy. We see our purpose as being motivators for the patients at Spain Rehab.”

The dogs participate in therapy by allowing the patients to interact with the animal, whether it is through brushing the dog or playing with small toys to target fine-motor skills. The program is also meant to provide emotional support for the patients.

To get the study off the ground, Schwebel and Cardwell looped in UAB School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation to be able to examine the effects on spinal cord patients at Spain Rehabilitation Center.

“These are patients who have had an injury in the last few weeks, oftentimes who are now paralyzed for life,” Schwebel said. “They have both psychological and physical rehab to deal with. The question is, 'will interacting with therapy dogs help them get better quicker?'”

In the study, half the patients have four sessions with a therapy dog while the other half do not get any sessions. Schwebel’s team will then look at the various outcomes that are being measured to see if there is a difference in recovery between the two sets of patients.

“They’re tough injuries, but there is a rehabilitation process, and its phenomenal here at UAB. Adding to that is opportunities we have for our patients like therapy dogs through Hand in Paw, so we feel optimistic that the results will ultimately reflect a positive effect on the patients who interact with the therapy dogs.”

The team will measure physical-based outcomes as well as emotional-based outcomes.

Physical improvement is measured in terms of strength, balance and capacity to move. With emotional functioning, the team will measure depression, anxiety, feelings about the future and feelings about their injury.

“These are very serious, life-changing injuries, and severe pathology often comes along with this,” Schwebel said. “They’re tough injuries; but there is a rehabilitation process, and it's phenomenal here at UAB. Adding to that are opportunities we have for our patients like therapy dogs through Hand in Paw, so we feel optimistic that the results will ultimately reflect a positive effect on the patients who interact with the therapy dogs.”

Hand in Paw’s outreach in the UAB community is widespread. The organization brings animal-therapy teams to the Comprehensive Cancer Center, helps provide “puppy study breaks” for students and also has been honored by the UAB Benevolent Fund with a Community Impact Grant.

“We’re happy to be partnering with Hand in Paw on this effort,” Schwebel said. “They do so much outreach for the UAB community and the Birmingham community in general. We hope this study helps validate even further the great work they are doing.”

“We’re hopeful to prove, and I think we will, that we’re part of that healing process,” Cardwell said. “My goal is that we continue to do research, and we can prove how valuable this type of therapy is. The future is wide open for Hand in Paw and UAB to work together.”

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