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How do nursing home residents benefit the most from dog visits?

Nursing home residents with an advanced dementia benefit the most from simple dog visits where they are just together with the dog without doing any specific activities. However, for the most well-functioning residents, it may make sense to add activities which can stimulate for more interaction with the dog. This is what a new study from Department of Animal Science at Aarhus University indicates.

New research shows that the “optimum dog visit” is not necessarily the same for all nursing home residents. Residents with an advanced dementia benefit the most from visits when only focusing on the dog while others may benefit from adding an extra activity. Photo: TrygFonden.
New research shows that the “optimum dog visit” is not necessarily the same for all nursing home residents. Residents with an advanced dementia benefit the most from visits when only focusing on the dog while others may benefit from adding an extra activity. Photo: TrygFonden.

Dog visits have become a popular activity in many nursing homes in Europe. Several organisations around the world, like TrygFonden’s Visiting dogs in Denmark, recruit voluntary dog owners and their dogs to give nursing home residents the opportunity of having animal contact.

In several previous studies, it has been studied how dog visits affect nursing home residents. These studies have primarily focused on the long-term effects of such visits measured bypsychometric scales, evaluating symptoms of for example depression and loneliness and quality of life. Many things indicate that dog visits in nursing homes have the potential to be a good and positive type of activity to the residents. However, in general, the study design and lack of control groups in previous studies have made it difficult to conclude uniquely from these results.

The type of dog visit may make a difference

Nursing home residents typically have a number of varying physical and cognitive disabilities and impairments. In general, being engaged in everyday activities seems to have a positive effect on the residents’ well-being. However, residents with severe dementia generally tend to participate less in such activities.

“Here, a visiting dog is a possible activity that may fulfil the very different needs and wishes from nursing home residents as regards how to interact and communicate socially”, says senior researcher Karen Thodberg from Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University, who does research within the topic. “But we need more knowledge in the area, especially if we want to identify which elements in the dog visits from that benefit  the nursing home residents the most”, she clarifies.

In a previous study, Karen Thodberg and her research colleagues have found that a dog is better at keeping nursing home residents’ attention and engagement during visits compared to visits where a robot seal or a toy cat is brought along. This may be due to obvious fact that a dog has a bigger behavioural repertoire than a robot seal and a toy cat, and therefore is more inconstant. Furthermore, they found that residents with a severe degree of impairment preferred to interact with an animal rather than a human being during a visit, regardless of which of the above-mentioned animals or toys the visitor brought along. The opposite was the case for the more well-functioning residents. According to Karen Thodberg, this may be due to the fact that the contact to an animal is a less demanding interaction – maybe because you do not have to speak or remember the relation.

On that background, she has in cooperation with researchers in psychiatry and psychology from Copenhagen and Aalborg, respectively, conducted a new study aiming to see if the opportunity of an increased interaction with a visiting dog could have a positive effect and stimulate the residents to further activity during a dog visit. “By observing how nursing home residents interact with the dog during the visit, we can obtain more knowledge about how various opportunities for interaction with the dog engage residents with different degrees of dementia and possibly find the key to better understanding the potentially positive long-term effects of having regular contact with a dog”, explains Karen Thodberg.

Dog visit with or without activity

In total, 151 nursing home residents participated in the study. Three different types of visit werestudied, and each resident only received one type of visit:

  1. Visit with a dog – no activity
  2. Visit with a dog – plus activity
  3. Visit without a dog – plus activity

Each resident received two individual visits per week during a period of six weeks (i.e., 12 visits in total).

Each visit lasted 10 minutes and took place in the nursing home in the resident’s own living room. During each dog visit, the resident sat in his/her own chair or wheelchair, and the dog was within reach.

During the first type of visit, the resident “only” had a visit by the dog and was encouraged to contact it. During the second type of visit, the resident also had the opportunity for example to brush the dog, hide a treat or give the dog a command. The last type of visit did not involve a dog, but the resident had the opportunity to participate in activities, such as seeing and talking about photos from the old days or of royal persons, guessing lyrics, or smelling and touching things from the nature.

An observer registered the residents’ behaviour during the visit, and the participating dogs were all approved visiting dogs from TrygFonden’s corps of visiting dogs.

Dementia-affected residents benefit the most from the simple dog visits

The results from the study showed that dog visits, without an extra activity, stimulate nursing home residents to interact physically and verbally with the dog – especially residents with severe dementia. The introduction of an activity together with the dog visit stimulated the more cognitively well-functioning residents to interact more with the dog – while the opposite was the case for the residents with a severe cognitive impairment.

“Therefore, we conclude that the optimum dog visit is not necessarily the same for all nursing home residents. For the most cognitively well-functioning residents, it would be a good idea to give the resident the opportunity to interact with the dog in different ways. On the other hand, it seems that dog visits with no extra activity, thus focussing only on the dog, are more appropriate for residents with a more advanced dementia”, concludes Karen Thodberg.

Besides observing what happens during the dog visit, the researchers have also conducted “before and after” measurements of the degree of depression and dementia, if any, in the nursing home residents. These results will be published later this year.

Facts about the project



The project has been funded by TrygFonden.


Poul B. videbech (ekstern), Psykiatrisk Center Glostrup
Role: Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Methodology, Writing – review & editing 

Tia G.B. Hansen (external), Center for Developmental & Applied Psychological Science
Role: Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Methodology, Writing – review & editing 

External commenting

TrygFonden has read the scientific article before it was submitted. However, they have not had the opportunity to change the manuscript.

Read more

Link to the full scientific article: Dog visits in nursing homes – increase complexity or keep it simple? A randomised controlled study (plos.org)     


Karen Thodberg, Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University. E-mail: Karen.Thodberg@anis.au.dk