University of Delaware
UD alumna Cassie Gonce is conducting research to better understand the benefits that therapy dogs can offer to patients.

Pets that pacify

UD alumna to study therapy dog interaction


6:14 p.m., Oct. 23, 2014--Cassie Gonce, a University of Delaware alumna, has been working with therapy dogs since she was an undergraduate student. Now she's conducting research to better understand the benefits that therapy dogs can offer to patients waiting to undergo chemotherapy. Specifically, she wants to determine if these dogs can sense patients’ stress levels and then provide additional comfort to those who exhibit the greatest need. 

Gonce, who received her bachelor's degree in human services at UD, currently works for PAWS for People. She has partnered with Dr. Scott Siegel of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center to develop a study titled "Canine Sixth Sense: A Study of Therapy Dog-Initiated Interaction in Waiting Room Settings." 

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The purpose of this study is “to determine the level to which trained therapy dogs are able to recognize feelings of anxiety, loneliness and/or illness among patients with cancer in a waiting room setting.” 

The study will track three groups of 10 participants, with results expected by the end of April 2015. Interactions with a therapy dog will be monitored to determine if there is “a measurable difference in the time the therapy dog spends with patients who are more ‘at-risk’ of having less social support, more anxiety and/or a more pervasive diagnosis.” 

Gonce first became interested in working for PAWS as a student at UD. “I was initially planning to become a marriage and family counselor. Then one day, I was sitting on the couch and a commercial for The Seeing Eye came on the television. A ‘light bulb’ went off in my head and I realized that I could help others while also working with animals.”

She volunteered at PAWS for more than a year before securing an internship through UD. Her coursework was structured to include a research study on the effects of animal-assisted therapy on patients in a hospital waiting room setting. The study took place in the Breast Health Center at Union Hospital in Elkton, Maryland, and Gonce says it fueled her interest for research on pet therapy.

Upon graduating in 2009, Gonce was offered a position at PAWS and began her current position as director of volunteer development. In this role, she manages and supports the volunteer therapy teams, coordinates volunteer schedules and facilitates programs and partnerships with surrounding organizations.  

“The best part of my job,” Gonce said, “is being able to utilize my skills learned as a human services major at the University of Delaware. Much of what I learned through my counseling courses can be transferred to working with volunteers.”

PAWS continues to provide internships to current students, with three UD students expected to be involved in the research project this fall.  

Article by Sara Penchina

Photos provided by Cassie Gonce

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