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When dogs were first introduced as just another form of entertainment at hospitals and nursing homes, no one predicted what an incredible impact these canine candy stripers would have on patients. In a heartwarming article by Margot Roosevelt of Time Magazine, we read just a few of the amazing stories and profound effects our four-legged friends have had in hospitals, retirement homes, and other medical centers around the country.
Dogs With Jobs: Canine Candy Stripers
The 65-year-old patient, hospitalized for quadruple-bypass surgery, had not moved or opened her eyes in days. Her relatives, grim-faced, stood around the bed. “They thought they had lost her,” recalls Betty Walsh, a volunteer in the intensive-care unit at the UCLA Medical Center.
Then Walsh ushered in Kolya, a 145-lb. shaggy white Great Pyrenees, who climbed right up onto the woman’s bed and snuggled against her body. Five minutes passed in silence. Then the woman’s hand moved slowly toward the dog. She began to stroke his soft, thick coat. Another five minutes passed. The woman smiled and murmured, “So lovely…” “For half an hour she kept petting him and calling him ‘my friend,'” says Walsh. “The whole time, I watched the blood-pressure monitor go down, down, down.”
Kolya is not the only therapist making the rounds of the vast hospital complex at UCLA. There’s also a poodle named Platinum, a pug named Egor and a greyhound named Aladdin–not to mention the eight golden retrievers, four black Labs, two German shepherds and several mutts. Canine candy-striping–which began in the 1980s as just another recreational activity for patients, like clown visits to children’s hospitals or barbershop-quartet appearances at nursing homes–has evolved into an important and fast-growing component of modern patient care.
And not just at UCLA. At Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, dogs have been incorporated into rehabilitation treatments for victims of brain and spinal-cord injuries. At the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, Sandra Barker brings her own Lhasa apso to relax shock-therapy patients who are visibly trembling before treatment. In Texas, dogs are used to motivate children recovering in burn units and to calm residents in Alzheimer’s wards.
“One patient was shaking the door handle and crying to get out,” says Mara Baun, a University of Texas nursing professor who has co-authored 13 studies on the medical benefits of animal companions. “The staff could not get him away from the door. But the golden retriever–who had never been trained to do this–took him by the cuff of his sleeve, and he followed quietly.”
Indeed, the animals are so good at what they do that it may be only a matter of time before they win over the real powers that be in the medical establishment–the HMOs. “Insurance companies will need to recognize the benefits of animal-assisted therapy and reimburse accordingly,” predicts Richmond’s Barker, whose study of 230 hospitalized patients treated with–and without–a dog in the room was published in the journal Psychiatric Services. The canine-assisted sessions measurably reduced anxiety in depressive and demented patients and cut the anxiety level of psychotic patients in half.
Most dogs practicing in hospitals today are certified either by Therapy Dogs International in New Jersey or by the Delta Society, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that screens dogs for personality, obedience and training in hospital protocols. Delta estimates that its 4,500 “pet partners” have provided services for 350,000 patients in 45 states.
UCLA’s program began in 1994, when Kathie Cole, a cardiac-care nurse and dog lover, convinced the hospital that animals could lift the spirits of heart-transplant patients during the months they spend in the hospital waiting for an organ. “When depression sets in, the physiology plummets,” she says. So successful were the cardiac dogs that the program expanded to 26 out of the hospital’s 34 inpatient units, giving more than 17,000 patients the benefits of canine companionship. The 40 dogs now volunteering pass an hour-long evaluation in which they have to remain unflappable in the face of careening wheelchairs, screaming strangers and scary tangles of tubes. Handlers are coached in how to position the animals on beds, encourage dog-to-patient eye contact and wash patients’ hands before and after visits. Every dog wears a laminated picture ID and a blue bandanna with a paw-print design.
Increasingly, researchers distinguish between animal-assisted activities, which are practiced in some 600 U.S. hospitals, and formal animal-assisted therapy, a newer discipline in which dogs are used by medical professionals to achieve a specific therapeutic goal. On a recent afternoon, peals of laughter echoed across the UCLA Medical Center’s pediatric ward as Corky, a Yorkshire terrier, rolled over and danced for a two-year-old transplant patient. “I want him in my bed!” insisted the six-year-old next door.
Meanwhile, in a more focused intervention two floors away, a recreation therapist employed Ginger, an Australian shepherd, to help a brain-surgery patient recover his balance. Trailing an IV and secured with a harness, Chris Pereira, 26, bent down to groom the dog with his weak arm and then threw a ball for her to fetch. “I can’t turn my neck, and my eyesight isn’t good,” Pereira says. “The dog gives me courage.”
Read the remainder of the Time Magazine article here. Have you ever had your life touched by a canine candy striper or have any other stories of the amazing ways that dogs can touch our lives? Share your story with us below!