Image: Marian Banks and Sparky
Tom Gannam  /  AP
Marian Banks sits with her dog, Sparky, at her home in St. Louis. Sparky is part of an ongoing study to determine how interaction with animals can reduce feelings of loneliness in the elderly.
updated 1/12/2006 3:58:10 PM ET 2006-01-12T20:58:10

Dogs apparently need no help lifting the spirits of lonely people. A study has found that nursing home residents felt much less lonely after spending time alone with a dog than when other people joined in the visit. The residents shared their problems and story in "intimate conversations" with the visiting dog, researchers said.

"It was a pretty surprising finding," said Dr. William Banks of Saint Louis University, who co-authored the study with his wife, Marian Banks, a postdoctoral fellow in nursing at Washington University at the time.

"They were happier with the one-on-one ... bonding with the animal. It suggests human interaction is not value-added, and might be slightly detrimental."

Residents at three St. Louis nursing homes who said they wanted dog visits were divided into two groups. One group received one-on-one visits with a dog; the other group shared the dog visitor with several other residents.

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Researchers suspected the visiting dog would prompt socialization — and reduce loneliness — but the residents who shared dog visits with other people reported only slightly less loneliness. The big winners were the residents who had exclusive visits with dogs. Their loneliness decreased substantially.

The research will be published in the March issue of Anthrozoos.

"The study also found that the loneliest individuals benefited the most from visits with dogs," William Banks said.

An earlier phase of the study, conducted by Marian Banks in Mississippi in 1997, found that nursing home residents who received one to three dog visits a week had substantial decreases in loneliness, as measured in a psychological test instrument known as the UCLA loneliness scale. Those without dog visits had no change in loneliness.

The next phase of the study, at Saint Louis University, will look at whether robotic dogs popular in Japan have a similar effect on lonely seniors. Researchers will measure both residents' loneliness and ability to attach to the robotic dog.

Marian Banks said a Japanese study showed that the robotic dog, Aibo, elicited smiles from Alzheimer's patients.

Marian Banks said she used an academic mentor's golden retriever to conduct the first phase of the study in Mississippi.

But for the second and third studies in St. Louis, she's used Sparky, a mixed-breed dog she found four years ago in the alley behind her house.

She said his sweet disposition won her over, and she adopted and trained him. She said Sparky sits next to nursing home residents on their bed, listens to their stories, and lets them groom him.

"He sits there very nonjudgmental," she said.

"When they go to a nursing home, they lose all their possessions. They need to belong, love and be accepted. The dog gives unconditional love. They say the most incredible things in the presence of a dog."

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