Doctors and medical procedures can cause a great deal of anxiety in patients. Sometimes the Anxiety is so strong, patients can't even undergo the procedure they're scheduled for. MRIs in particular can lead to high anxiety because the patient is confined in a small space. The traditional way of dealing with this has been with anti-anxiety drugs like Valium.

A high school student may have found a better way — therapy dogs.

On average, anxiety decreased from a score of 43 to a score of 29 after the session with the therapy dog.

Studies have shown that petting a dog has a calming effect on people. This works especially well for children. But dogs have rarely been used in medical settings before.

The idea of using a dog as a calming influence came to Allison Ruchman, a high school junior, while waiting for her own MRI. Exceedingly nervous, Allison found that thinking of her five-year old beagle, Wally, helped calm her down.

Of course, having Wally there would have done a much better job.

In the next year, both Allison and Wally underwent training and received certification: Allison as a dog therapist and Wally as a therapy dog.

Therapy dogs have been in use since 1976, but they've never been used before in this type of setting. Therapy dogs are dogs that are specially trained to allow and enjoy contact and handling by unfamiliar people. This is normal behavior for many dogs, but some are better at it than others. Therapy dog training helps enhance these qualities in suitable dogs and weeds out the unsuitable ones.

Allison's father, Richard Ruchman, M.D., is the chairman of Radiology at Monmouth Medical Center in New Jersey. Together, the two devised a study where Allison and Wally would visit patients awaiting an MRI at Monmouth, and the effects of this visit on patient anxiety would then be measured.

The study showed just how calming therapy dogs can be.

In the study, 28 patients scheduled to undergo an MRI spent 15 minutes in the waiting room with a therapy dog (Wally) one half-hour before taking the MRI. Patient interaction with the dog varied from quiet companionship to a more hands-on relationship.

All patients reacted positively to the visit and said that it helped calm their nerves.

The amount of anxiety felt by the patients was also measured by a 40-item questionnaire (the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults) before and after visiting with the dog. A higher score means greater anxiety. On average, anxiety decreased from a score of 43 to a score of 29 after the session with the therapy dog.

Six other patients who did not meet with the dog also had their anxiety measured at similar time intervals. Not surprisingly, they were just as anxious after the 15 minute wait as before, scoring 32.67 before the wait and 32.83 afterwards.

While small in size, the study shows the potential dogs have to make patients less anxious in a medical setting. Maybe one day, they'll be as common in the waiting room as magazines are today.

The results of the study were presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Roentgen Ray Society, a national radiological association, held in Chicago, May 1-6. The study has not yet been published and so is not peer-reviewed.