Developing effective animal-assisted intervention programs involving visiting dogs for institutionalized geriatric patients: a pilot study


Dr Francesca Cirulli PhD, Behavioural Neuroscience Unit, Department of Cell Biology and Neurosciences, Istituto Superiore Di Sanità, Viale Regina Elena 299, I-00161, Rome, Italy. Email:


Aim:  An ever increasing interest in the therapeutic aspects of the human-animal bond has led to a proliferation of animal-assisted interventions (AAI) involving dogs. However, most of these programs lack a solid methodological structure, and basic evaluative research is needed. The purpose of this study was to test the value of dog-assisted interventions as an innovative tool to increase quality of life in the geriatric population.

Methods:  Nineteen patients (men and women) with a mean age of 85 years participated in the study. Interactions between patients and visiting dogs occurred either in a social situation (socialization sessions) or in a therapeutic context (physical therapy sessions). We derived and characterized a specific ethogram of elderly-dog interactions aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of visiting dogs in improving mood, catalyzing social interactions and reducing their everyday apathetic state. Cortisol levels were also measured in the saliva, and depressive state was evaluated.

Results:  Overall, results show a time-dependent increase in social behaviour and spontaneous interactions with the dogs. Dog-mediated interactions affected the daily increase in cortisol levels, thus having an ‘activational effect’, in contrast to the apathetic state of institutionalized elderly.

Conclusions:  Dog-mediated intervention programs appear to be promising tools to improve the social skills and enrich the daily activities of the institutionalized elderly.