I've taken the opportunity before in this space to shamelessly drop my dog's name. Sometimes it's been a stretch; Roxie's connection to health care might be described as tenuous. Smart as she is, her medical expertise is limited and you wouldn't want to count on her in an emergency. Not long ago, I hit an icy patch while we were on our evening walk and ended up on, as Grandma used to say, my t'other end. Instead of making a beeline for the nearest emergency department or nudging my cellphone out of my pocket with her snout and dialing 911 as Lassie no doubt would have done, Roxie crawled onto my chest and licked my face like it was all just a barrel of laughs.

On the other hand, I've used experiences with our very plugged-in veterinary office to point out the advantages of electronic health records and robust patient portals. And I've cited visits to a friend's mother in a nursing home to show how pets can raise the spirits of ailing older folks.

This time around, I'm invoking Roxie's name for no other reason than to bring attention to a new study under way on whether therapy dogs might have a positive effect on children undergoing chemotherapy.

Like my Roxie stories, evidence that pets can bring aid and comfort to patients has been mostly anecdotal until now. So, Mary Jo Gilmer, R.N., of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, and her co-investigators want to come up with hard data to support that theory.

They're studying up to 20 children at five sites around the country who have acute lymphocytic leukemia or lymphoblastic lymphoma. Training for dogs and dog handlers began in December. Treatment typically involves one month of chemotherapy administered in the hospital, followed by weekly chemotherapy visits to a clinic. The dogs will be at those visits.

The researchers will evaluate the impact of pet therapy on anxiety and health-related quality of life for the kids, their parents or guardians, as well as the level of distress in the therapy dogs themselves.

"What research does tell us so far is that the physical effects of dealing with cancer may greatly improve over time, but often the psychosocial effects linger," says Gilmer, a palliative care expert. "Animal-assisted therapy may have the potential to assist families in coping with the child's cancer experience."

I'll let you know what the data show when the study is complete.