Unleashing the Power of Therapy Dogs for Cancer Patients With Colleen Stoner and Diane Haley, LCSW

Therapy animals can deliver profound psychological, physiological, emotional, and social benefits for patients with cancer. At the recent 48th Annual Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) Congress, Colleen Stoner, Manager of Volunteer Leaders at Pet Partners, and Diane Haley, LCSW, Director of Patient Experience at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, gave a presentation titled UnLEASHing the Power of Pet Therapy: How to Integrate Pet Therapy Into Your Cancer Center. Afterwards, they sat down with Oncology Data Advisor to elaborate on the powerful impacts that therapy animals can have on the experiences of patients with cancer.  

Oncology Data Advisor: Welcome to Oncology Data Advisor. Today, we’re here at ONNS Congress, and I’m joined by Colleen Stoner and Diane Haley. Thank you both so much for coming on today.

Colleen Stoner: Thank you.

Diane Haley, LCSW: We are so happy to be with you.

Oncology Data Advisor: Would you both like to introduce yourselves and share what you do?

Ms. Haley: I’m Diane Haley. I am Director of Patient Experience at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I have been in that position a little over two years. I am also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker by training and have worked in oncology as an oncology social worker for almost 20 years.

Ms. Stoner: And I’m Colleen Stoner. I’m the Manager of Volunteer Leaders at Pet Partners. We’re headquartered in Seattle, but we work remotely across the country. I live here in Texas and have worked with Pet Partners now for about four years, but prior to that my background was at a hospital where I started a therapy animal program. It was really amazing when this job popped open with Pet Partners to work remotely with something I felt so passionate about.

Oncology Data Advisor: That’s amazing. I also have a therapy dog, as well. We’re certified through Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs. I have a black Lab, and I can definitely attest to how amazing it is to work with therapy dogs.

Ms. Stoner: Awesome.

Oncology Data Advisor: So, you both just presented a session titled UnLEASHing the Power of Pet Therapy. What are some of the particular benefits of pet therapy for patients with cancer?

Ms. Haley: There are psychological benefits, physiological benefits, emotional benefits, and social benefits. If you want to take somebody’s blood pressure, you can watch it go down when they’re petting a dog. If you hook them up to the right kinds of machines, you can check and see what their cortisol levels are doing and what their oxytocin is doing. But mostly, you can see it in their faces. You just see something that is akin to doing any other kind of stress management intervention, where you can feel tension lessen. You can see them relax into it. You can see them engage socially with other patients or take out their cell phone and take a selfie with the dog. They’re clearly going to send that to somebody to show. There’s not a ton of data on the psychological and emotional benefits, so you have to kind of go by the anecdotal evidence of patients.

Oncology Data Advisor: The smiles that they bring out.

Ms. Haley: Exactly, and even behind a mask. One of my slides in the presentation is of one of our pediatric patients petting two dogs at once. Even under a mask, you can see how engaged she is and how excited she is that the dogs are there.

Oncology Data Advisor: That’s amazing. Anything you would like to add, Colleen?

Ms. Stoner: I think it’s same as Diane said—it just provides a way for patients to think about something else for a while. When you have cancer, your focus is laser-focused. Introducing animals into the patient care environment just takes their mind off of what they’re going through for a while. It’s such a blessing because it then provides these physiological benefits that Diane was talking about. It’s just fun. It’s a positive—in a negative space, it’s very positive. It also helps the caregivers, and it helps the nurses and staff too. If they have a patient who is in that negative head space, it helps with the treatment process too.

Ms. Haley: Absolutely. And if we want to trace it even farther forward, we could probably even see outcome benefits for patients. But there’s a benefit for the staff member too in reduced stress. They talk about having a moment of calm in their day. It really helps to promote compassion satisfaction and lessen the workplace morale issues that are endemic right now for all of us.

Ms. Stoner: It’s almost like a momentary reset, that psychological sort of reset.

Oncology Data Advisor: They can just pause for a moment, pet a dog, and then get back to it. Do either of you have any favorite or memorable stories from times when a therapy dog made a lasting impact on a patient?

Ms. Haley: I talked in my presentation about how we recently had a patient who was finishing her chemo, and she called me and wanted to reserve what she called a “chemo cuddle dog” for her last session. That’s my new favorite term for them, and of course we made that happen. She had an extended visit with the dog, and not just the patient benefited, but the staff and the handlers did too. The handlers had T-shirts made afterwards that they now wear to their sessions that say “Team Cuddle Dog” with the dog’s name on it. That was definitely a highlight.

Oncology Data Advisor: That’s so sweet.

Ms. Stoner: I also shared a story that has been very impactful to me. We have some videos we produced from Pet Partners about actual people who have benefited, and one was a 22-year-old burn victim. He had been burned over 90% of his body. He was in the hospital for a year, and he didn’t even get out of bed to attempt to walk for seven months. At 22 years old, that’s a lot. The nurses intervened and said, “We’ve got to do something.”

They had therapy animals in another part of the hospital, but they didn’t have them in the burn unit, and they felt like it was safe because of where he was in his treatment progress. They brought in two therapy animals, and the difference in his mood, the difference in his participation—they had truly thought he was going to die because he had given up, but doing this was kind of a springboard. It started propelling him. He says in the video, “These interactions were what saved me, because they inspired me so much.”

It’s just an animal in a clinical setting; other people will look at it and say, “I don’t get it,” but it’s real. It’s almost like a miracle worker for those who choose to interact with the animals. It’s amazing what happens. It’s just amazing. The nurses even said it was the first time they had seen a smile on his face for months. How sad is that? All it took was a visit from Peaches and Honeyduke, and it just turned his whole life around.

Oncology Data: That’s incredible, very powerful.

Ms. Stoner: It’s incredible.

Oncology Data Advisor: I think the biggest question here is, if anyone is interested in setting up a pet therapy program at their center, how can they go about that? 

Ms. Stoner: I think we could both help them. With Pet Partners, anybody can go on petpartners.org and create a login, whether they’re interested in becoming a therapy animal team or not. They’re welcome to create a login, and we have many facilities that do that. Once they create a login, it will take them to a menu where they can select the resource center. That resource library has all kinds of information, including a facilities toolkit. It is designed specifically to answer all those questions that you just brought up. It talks about different things that stakeholders will be interested in, like your infection control staff, your administrative staff, and your risk management department. It kind of covers it all.

That’s one way to set up a program at their center. Then we take it further and allow them to post their volunteer opportunity on our website. We’re happy to help any facility that would like to set up a program. We’re more than happy to help.

Ms. Haley: And from my vantage point, I’ve actually started two pet therapy programs. One was about 20 years ago in a hospital setting upon request from oncology services. I was, at that time, Director of Volunteer Services at a large hospital. We jumped through every infection control hoop, and we jumped through every risk management hoop. It took months to implement the program. I’m proud to say that that program is now throughout the hospital. It started in oncology, and now it is everywhere at that hospital.

When I came to this position two years ago, my job was to improve the patient experience as Director of Patient Experience. I knew based on my past experience that bringing in programs like pet therapy is a really powerful way to do that. We were in the midst of a pandemic, in March 2021, and nobody was allowed in. We weren’t allowing visitors in, so we started it outside with the blessing of our leadership. It’s imperative to get your leadership buy-in and facilities buy-in, so that’s where you want to start. Then we needed to get the staff engaged. The staff was engaged by sending out a link to the Warrior Canine Companion’s puppy cam, where you just watch puppies play and frolic.

Ms. Stoner: That’s so smart, I wish I’d thought of that. That’s brilliant.

Ms. Haley: It was just a little teaser, but some of the nurses tell me they still watch it and remind me to watch it every now and then. Starting in a pandemic also allowed me to put the policies and procedures and guidelines all in place. I had the luxury of time to be able to do that. But for any organization that’s looking at doing this, you don’t have to invent the wheel. It’s been done. Pet Partners is willing to share, and organizations want to see this grow in other facilities so we don’t see the starting of a program as proprietary in any way. Please take it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. We are happy to help people. I actually have been contacted by organizations throughout the country who read about our program, because our PR people did a great job of promoting this. That’s probably why we’re here at Congress, because our names come up when you Google pet therapy.I think organizations have to think creatively. The outdoor sessions were a really good intro to this. Some organizations are doing virtual pet therapy by scheduling one-on-one sessions. That’s kind of like a personal puppy cam. But I’m happy that we now have onsite visits again as of last April, and the word on the street is that some of the regulations are going to be lifted soon. Our inpatients, who are our outpatients, really want these visits when they happen to be inpatient, so we’ll make that happen too.

Oncology Data Advisor: Absolutely. Anything else either of you’d like to share?

Ms. Stoner: I guess the last thing I would share is, like Diane said, you have to kind of jump through hoops with administration, with infection control, with whoever, but don’t reinvent those wheels, like she said. Don’t let a closed door stop you. Definitely reach out to your colleagues. At Pet Partners, if you reach out to me, I can find resources for you to connect with, because we have therapy animal teams in so many different facilities that I can definitely hook up a facility with another facility to help out. And Diane said she’s available too. It’s too easy to stop once one door closes, but we’ve both had doors close on us and we just kept charging through.

Ms. Haley. You bet.

Oncology Data Advisor: Awesome. Well, this so great to learn about. Thank you both so much for sharing it all.

Ms. Haley: Thank you.

Ms. Stoner: Thank you.

About Ms. Stoner and Ms. Haley

Colleen Stoner is the Manager of Volunteer Leaders at Pet Partners, an animal-assisted therapy organization. Previously, she spent 20 years as a volunteer director at a hospital, where she started their first therapy animal program. At Pet Partners, she helps handlers and facilities navigate the process of becoming involved with pet therapy programs.

Diane Haley, LCSW, is the Director of Patient Experience at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She has worked as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in various health care settings, including Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, New Jersey, where she established their pet therapy program. Additionally, she is an Instructor in the Rutgers School of Social Work and has a private psychotherapy practice specializing in collaborative medical psychotherapy.

For More Information

Stoner C & Haley D (2023). UnLEASHing the power of pet therapy: how to integrate pet therapy into your cancer center. Presented at: 48th Annual Oncology Nursing Society Congress. Available at: https://ons.confex.com/ons/2023/meetingapp.cgi/Session/4955

Pet Partners (2023). Available at: https://petpartners.org/

Transcript edited for clarity. Any views expressed above are the speakers’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of Oncology Data Advisor. 

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