How to Test the Impact of a Therapy Dog Experimentally

Knowing the process of experimentation and actually doing an experiment are two different things. Let us take you through what we’ve done so far:

We started our research on June 26th, which consisted of background research in the library and various databases to gather some base knowledge in order to determine how we wanted to conduct our experiment.  We then began the lengthy process of perfecting a proposal to send to the IRB in order to get approval for our experiment.  This process took several days due to multiple drafts and revisions.

Jen is explaining (or trying to explain) our research process.

The experiment itself took around two weeks to perfect before we felt confident in using its design.  Even after our proposal was accepted, we performed several trial runs within advance in order to determine possible errors or problems that could arise within testing.

Our experiment is conducted in a series of pieces or sections.  In the “pre-test” section, each participant is asked exclusion questions to determine whether or not they have the ability to participate in our study.

The controller, pulse monitor and blood pressure monitor.

Once a participant has passed the exclusion questions, they are directed to take a seat in a classroom desk and hooked up to a blood pressure cuff along with a continuous pulse monitor attached to a new form of software called iWorx.

Here is what the computer screen looks like when we are collecting data using iWorx.

The iWorx program allows us to better examine what happens to pulse throughout the entire experiment whereas the blood pressure cuff can only give readings at a certain instant.  The participant is asked to relax for three minutes in order to obtain normal baseline readings.  After baseline readings have been recorded, participants are asked to rate their present stress verbally on a scale of 1 to 10.  This concludes the “pre-test” section.

In the “testing” section, participants are given a list of twenty anagrams (scrambled words) and told that the list is a test of their cognitive ability.  Participants are allowed three minutes to complete the test with warnings at the two minute and one minute marks.  The test actually has nothing to do with cognitive ability.  The test is a form of stressor that we use in hopes of increasing the stress levels in participants to heighten their physiological measurements of heart rate and blood pressure.  The test is impossible to complete within three minutes.  It actually took our entire research team about twenty minutes to complete it.  After three minutes of testing has passed, blood pressure and heart rate are again recorded, along with a verbal self-report of stress.  This concludes the “testing” section of the experiment.

In the “post-testing” section, participants are exposed to one of three randomly assigned conditions:

This is one of the therapy dogs, “Wrigley.” Isn’t he cute?

1)     Our first condition is contact with a trained therapy dog.  Participants in this condition are allowed a three-minute interaction time with a trained therapy dog with owner present.  Once the participant has been allowed three minutes with the therapy dog, blood pressure, heart rate, and verbal stress are again measured. Check out the dogs 🙂

And this is “Oliver.”

2)     The second condition is interaction with a stuffed dog.  The purpose of this condition is to determine whether or not contact with something soft is equivalent to interacting with a real dog.  Due to the sufficient evidence from past research, such as Harlow’s experiments on monkeys, we felt it necessary to include this condition in our design.

Our stuffed dogs, “Riley” and “Biscuit,” were very well-behaved, thanks to expert handling by Aubrey.

Participants in this condition are asked to interact by petting a stuffed dog for a three-minute interval.  As with the real dog condition, blood pressure, heart rate, and verbal stress are measured after the dog is taken away.

3)     The final condition is a no dog condition.  True to its name, participants do not interact with any form of a dog.  Participants are instructed to sit and relax for three minutes before final measurements are recorded.  This is to determine the difference in physiological measurements with a dog versus no dog at all.

Because most of our participants willingly participated in our study due to their love of dogs, participants assigned to the stuffed-dog or no-dog condition are allowed time with a real therapy dog after testing has been completed.

Aubrey and Zoe are waiting with Dr. Trujillo’s dog, Whitney. She came to give some loving to people in the control conditions at the end of the experiment.

Participants then fill out a demographic questionnaire, are debriefed that the cognitive test was not to test their intellectual ability and was impossible to complete, and thanked for their time.

Our testing began on July 13th, and we just finished our data collection today, July 23rd.  Overall, we had 25 participants help us in our research, along with 6 therapy dog teams.  Our goal now is to analyze all of our collected data in order to determine what type of impact dogs have on physiological measurements of stress.

By the way, not all our dogs were fluffy and white, we just happened to take pictures on days when there were white, fluffy dogs! More soon…

Zoe Harris, Jen Rushton, and Aubrey Graham contributed to this post.

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