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Not just another furry face: The scientific benefits of therapy dogs

Volunteer Michael Bourassa and his dog, Copain

Six-year-old Copain wags his tail as he enters The Ottawa Hospital’s front doors. The sights, sounds and smells of a hospital could easily distract an ordinary dog—but not Copain. As one of several volunteer therapy dogs that visit The Ottawa Hospital, he and his K9 colleagues have an important job to do: help staff, patients and visitors manage the challenges of being in the hospital.

His handler, Michel, has been a volunteer with The Ottawa  Hospital’s Pet Therapy Program for ten years, four of them with Copain.

Copain’s volunteer badge and vest
Copain has been a dedicated therapy dog volunteer at The Ottawa Hospital since 2017.

“Copain is very laid back,” said Michel. “He waits for people to come up to him, but once he gets close to a person and establishes a connection, he’ll lean into them. People say that’s his way of hugging.”

That hug is more than just a hug. Research suggests that interacting with a specially trained therapy dog has many brain and body benefits for hospital patients and staff.

Joanne Rodgers and her dog, Happy
Happy undergoes extensive training so that he can be part of the hospital team that provides compassionate care to patients.

As Dr. Christine Boisvert, a clinical and rehabilitation psychologist at The Ottawa Hospital explains, interacting with a therapy animal Like Copain:

  • Calms the nervous system. Heart rate and breathing rate slows down. Patients and staff report feeling generally calmer and more relaxed.
  • Promotes physical and emotional health. Petting an animal can help a person with an arm injury learn to use their arm again. Grooming an animal can help a person living with depression feel a sense of purpose.
  • Releases feel-good hormones (in the animal and the human). Higher levels of dopamine and oxytocin increase feelings of safety and connection. These hormones are released within just ten to 15 minutes of the interaction
  • Helps humanize the hospital environment. Hospitals can sometimes feel like big, impersonal spaces. Therapy dogs help patients see that, at its core, a hospital is a place where people help people.
  • Improves the patient-provider relationship: Patients and staff who interact with therapy animals report feeling more comfortable sharing information.
  • Decreases loneliness. Long hospital stays can cause loneliness in some patients.  A visit from a therapy dog pair provides joyful anticipation, a change in routine, and genuine companionship between the therapy dog and the patient.
Donna Bowers and her dog, Sandy
Sandy is one of several volunteer therapy dogs that support patients, staff and visitors at The Ottawa Hospital.

Not every dog is as highly trained as Copain, Happy and Sandy, but you can get some of the same benefits from interacting with a dog or other friendly animal in your life. So the next time you scratch an animal behind its ear and notice yourself smile and relax, it’s not just because of their cute face—it’s science!

About the Pet Therapy Program at The Ottawa Hospital

The Ottawa Hospital’s Volunteer Resources have a long-standing partnership with St. John Ambulance, Ottawa Therapy Dogs and Ottawa Humane Society.  Therapy animals receive training and certification through these organizations, but they and their handlers must also be hospital volunteers. All requests and inquiries about the Pet Therapy Program at the hospital should be made through the hospital’s Volunteer Resources.


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This website gives you common facts, advice and tips. Some of it may not apply to you. Please talk to your doctor, nurse or other health-care team member to see if this information will work for you. They can also answer your questions and concerns.