Dogs Can Be the Best Medicine

Dogs Can Be the Best Medicine

Trained therapy dogs bring a window of joy to many patients.

NIH is going to the dogs and the patients love it.

For an hour or two each week, M.G., a four-year-old Shih Tzu therapy dog, considers NIH’s Multi Institute Pediatrics Unit his territory. Wearing official therapy dog tags and his hair tied up out of his eyes in ponytails, the freshly washed pooch prances into the waiting room at the heels of his owner, Burton Goldstein. He is on his way to a vet exam and briefing before greeting his first patient of the day.

Goldstein and M.G. are part of National Capital Therapy Dogs (NCTD), a volunteer-based, non-profit organization that evaluates and trains dogs so that they may bring their special brand of comfort and cheer to hospitals, nursing homes and even schools in most areas of the county.

Goldstein, who lives in the Kentlands, and M.G., greet other NCTD team members Harvey Eisen with 9 year-old Suchie, a rescue lab/shepherd and Linda Solano, with her doe-eyed whippet Jessie cuddled in her arms.

While they wait for their briefing, the dogs, all socially savvy, greet each other with a wag of a tail or a brief sniff and then settle down. If a yap or a nip accompanies a greeting, their breech of etiquette will be discussed later. For therapy dogs, good manners are everything.

Why therapy dogs? Pets help people feel less lonely and isolated; they provide companionship for the elderly and often distraction from illnesses.

Founded in 1990 by six volunteer dog/handler teams, NCTD has certified more than 45 teams in the Baltimore/Washington area with the majority in Montgomery County, according to Mark Cohen, president.

“We are always looking for new volunteers and qualified facilities,” said Cohen. “The best facilities have a therapist that guides us and cares about what we are doing.”

Holly Parker, coordinator of animal-assisted therapy at NIH started their program in 1988 when a patient at the center happened to have a therapy dog and suggested that she look into it. Today, NIH considers the program important enough to have a full time veterinarian, Mark Haines.

On this morning, Haines gets down to doggie business at doggie level. He sits or kneels, eye to eye with Barbara Murgo’s Irish setter, Ross 6, examining teeth for cleanliness, inspecting ears and looking deep into dark liquid eyes for signs of disease or sickness. Some dogs are cooperative; others roll over, four paws in the air in playful abandonment.

Kristin Johnsen, another recreational therapist, alerts Parker to the specific needs of patients for that day. If they want someone to get out of bed to walk, she may ask for great big Ross; if she needs a bedside dog, a Beagle will do, or maybe 16-pound M.G.

Both Parker and Johnsen credit the therapy pet program with enhancing the lives of their patients, especially children, who are often in treatment at NIH for long periods of time.

Parker recalls an eight-year-old boy with a long-term illness who spent three months at NIH, often rocking in pain. He rarely responded to the staff. His only respite came during the therapy dog visits. Even on the worst days, he managed to get up to throw a ball for the dog, according to Parker. They tried to keep up the response with doggie pictures and stories, but it worked only briefly.

“We needed to have a dog there all the time,” said Parker.

Although M.G. has been groomed and trained for his visits, it is his temperament and congeniality that are the chief characteristics that make him the ideal therapy pet and the runner-up this year for the ACE (Achievement in Canine Excellence) award.

A docile nature, good health and basic obedience training are the prerequisites for a pet to participate in the program. The NCTD also offers classes for potential therapy dogs to guarantee that the dog will not panic if its ears are pulled or its tail tweaked.

“Those who take the class usually have a 90 percent chance of becoming eligible,” said Cohen. Anyone can volunteer. The evaluation covers basic obedience and temperament testing. Can the dog greet a stranger appropriately; walk by a strange dog or through a crowd? Can Rover react with indifference to clanging medical equipment, clinging hands or the clamor of children? The classes are offered three times a year. Therapy teams are reevaluated every two years.

Haines, a veterinary authority on the program stresses that strict sanitation measures are equally important. All facilities adhere to a formal procedure, especially at NIH where patients are often immuno- compromised.

The dogs must be bathed and have their teeth brushed before arriving for a visit. A sheet is placed on the bed for the dog and everything must be picked up after the visit. Team members must use a hand sterilizer.

Once the dogs complete their rounds at NIH, the teams meet again in the waiting room. Each handler reports the day’s activity to Parker and Haines during the debriefing and they note it on their charts. Nothing is left to chance.

NCTD is modeled after The Delta Society, the national organization founded in 1977 that oversees therapy and service animals and provides guidance and certification to its many organizations. There are over 2,000 dogs and other pets participating in its therapy programs and they reach more than 350,000 people each year.

Goldstein, treasurer of the Potomac Chamber of Commerce first learned about therapy dogs from a friend associated with NIH.

“When I first started I was warned not to get involved but to bring joy to patients,” said Goldstein. “Bottom line is that you go in and do not know what is going to happen and sometimes you give more to the parents or staff members than the patient.”

Goldstein recounts a visit with a patient who sat alone in a corner. To gain her confidence he asked her if M.G. could sit with her. The dog sat in her lap and she spoke about her own four dogs. It was a normal visit until Goldstein learned later that she was catatonic and had not spoken before.

“It is not just taking your dog in and doing good, sometimes you inadvertently assist in their recovery process,” he said.

On another occasion, a woman on an adult schizophrenic floor had never left her room during her stay. When the therapy dog arrived the nurses watched in disbelief as she went into the corridor and began hugging the dog.

“Dogs represent the outside world to people in a hospital, because they usually see white coats and needles,” said Goldstein. “Sometimes a four-legged fur ball can accomplish what all the staff in a hospital can’t.”