Dogs specially trained to provide patients with inspiration and love are key players in the healing process at several KentuckyOne Health facilities.
There’s nothing like a wet nose and kind eyes to warm the heart and revive the spirit. But animals can offer more than companionship. Pets who have been specially trained to provide certain types of support to individuals facing health challenges can help people recover.
The canine companions at Frazier Rehab Institute, part of KentuckyOne Health, are certified to deliver Animal Assisted Therapy services, and dogs at the Saint Joseph Cancer Center, Saint Joseph Hospital, Saint Joseph East and Saint Joseph East Cancer Center, all part of KentuckyOne Health, socialize with patients and visitors, helping keep smiles on their faces even when they’re dealing with medical concerns.
“Interacting with pets is soothing to many people,” said Jamine Hamner, director of Volunteer Services with KentuckyOne Health. “These animals can help lift spirits and calm people down when they are anxious. Our patients’ moods change when an animal is in the room — it’s amazing to see.”
A Tradition of Wagging Tails
Dogs began visiting patients at the Frazier Rehab Institute more than 15 years ago as part of a Pet Therapy Visitation program. Volunteer pet owners and certified therapy dogs visited patients on a weekly basis. The visits were a hit, and the staff decided to add a dog to the team permanently to interact with patients and families, as well as be involved in therapy interventions.
“Animal Assisted Therapy is a goal-directed program in which specially trained animals are an integral part of the treatment process,” said Jill Farmer, CTRS, manager of recreation therapy and adapted sports programs with Frazier Rehab Institute. “The therapy promotes improved physical, social, emotional and cognitive function. We saw real value in officially making dogs part of the work we do.”
A dog named Madison was the first four-legged staffer to join the KentuckyOne Health canine collaboration in 2006. The Paws with Purpose Organization placed her with the Frazier Rehab Institute, where she served solo until 2014, when she was joined by another facility dog named Charlie.
A breeder in Deer Park, Washington, donated Charlie to Frazier Rehab Institute. Like Madison, he was trained as a service animal. In December 2016, thanks to donations to the Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s Foundation, Frazier Rehab Institute welcomed a new therapy dog named Stanley.
These three four-legged pioneers forged ahead on a mission to help patients facing a variety of conditions, including working with patients who have had a:
- Stroke — The facility dogs help encourage individuals to talk, walk, or use an affected arm or leg for grooming or petting.
- Traumatic brain injury — Trained facility dogs can help improve a patient’s communication and thinking skills. For example, a therapist may ask the individual to identify or recall the dog’s age, color and name or to complete basic tasks, such as petting the dog.
The dogs can be especially helpful in pediatric cases, encouraging children to crawl, stand or speak.
“The dogs can motivate individuals to continue working rather than giving up,” Farmer said. “And receiving a service animal for personal use once they have been discharged home can open up a world of independence for a person. The animal can help with opening doors, pulling off shoes and socks, and retrieving dropped items.”
Patients need an order from a physician to work with a facility therapy animal. If a patient has a compromised immune system, this kind of treatment may not be recommended.
Dogs who visit patients at Saint Joseph facilities serve a purpose that is a little less clinical than the dogs at Frazier Rehab Institute. But their work is just as important.
“These dogs are volunteers, and their human parents are volunteers,” Hamner said. “They show up at the hospital according to a self-determined schedule and then walk around to cheer people up as requested. It’s an awesome experience.”
Volunteer dogs who visit Saint Joseph facilities must already be trained therapy dogs. Pet owners may sign up to volunteer online, and when a dog has been approved, the owner can use the same online system to set up visits. These dogs receive special therapy badges, clock in when they are ready for work and visit patients in need of furry companionship.
Partners in Puppy Love
KentuckyOne Health partners with community organizations Paws with Purpose, Pet Partners for Independence, Wonderful Animals Giving Support (WAGS), Central Kentucky Love on a Leash and Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
Paws with Purpose puppies in training visit Frazier Rehab Institute patients on the weekends. Pet Partners for Independence offers facility and therapy dog training. And volunteers with WAGS bring in trained therapy dogs to visit patients during the week.
Together, these organizations brighten the days and improve the health of patients.
Funding for the pet therapy program at Frazier Rehab Institute was provided by a generous gift from June and Stanley Atlas.
More Than Man’s Best Friend
While it can be tempting to pet and cuddle the doggy helpers, remember that facility dogs who are working as service animals have to keep their focus on their work when they are on the clock.
“Facility dogs like the ones at Frazier Rehab Institute are highly trained dogs who must go through a minimum two years of continuous training,” said Farmer. “They are not pets. They are allowed to be typical dogs when they are not at work but are required to follow specific commands when they are on the job.”
Charlie, a goldendoodle, celebrated his fifth birthday in April.
Teddy Stapleton, a cocker spaniel, is one of the many therapy dogs helping KentuckyOne Health patients.
Stanley, a yellow Labrador retriever, joined the pet therapy program in 2016.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 Fall edition of One Health Magazine. Sign up for your free subscription.