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A Patient's Best Friend

Dogs help rehabilitation therapy by just being themselves.

All the high-tech gizmos and laboratory analysis can't hold a candle to the snuggles and nuzzles of one warm-nosed canine when it comes to the remaining mystery of medical science — patient resilience and attitude.

At Inova Mount Vernon Hospital (IMVH) last Friday, it was time for the patients to say thank-you to their four-legged therapists and their owners.

Welcome to "Pet Therapy Day."

Held once a year, it is a day set aside to show appreciation to the dogs and their volunteer owners who make regular visits to the hospital's rehabilitation center to aid patients in their recovery. And this year, one of the dogs served in the dual role of patient and therapist.

Presently, there are seven dogs in the program, which was started approximately eight years ago, according to Amy Cook, recreation therapist, IMVH, and owner of Hobo, an Old English sheep dog. "This is our time to thank the dogs and their owners," Cook said.

"We have two programs. One is animal-assisted therapy and the other is pet visitations," Cook said. "The first actually works with the patients in helping them to get through the therapy sessions. The second is primarily geared to lifting the spirits of the patients. Many have left pets behind while in the hospital."

In animal-assisted therapy, a dog is an integral part of the therapeutic process. The program is designed to promote improvement in the patient's functioning. It is performed in a variety of settings within the hospital — the patient's room, hospital hallways, individual/group therapy rooms and physical therapy gym.

Animals assist in both occupational and physical therapy as well as speech therapy. In the former, they work in areas of balancing, walking and coordinating muscle movements. In the latter, their value is in understanding words, directions, clarity of speech and attending to a task, among other functions.

The criteria for becoming a therapy dog include completing two levels of obedience training, passing the canine good-citizen test of the American Kennel Club, having an updated shot record, completing IMVH canine interviewing and training session, and possessing certain caring characteristics.

For patients, the benefits include feeling less lonely and depressed, it's a welcoming change of routine for them, they become more active and responsive, it's a distraction from any pain they're enduring, it helps to decrease blood pressure, and dog therapy helps promote a better communicative attitude.

ONE OF THE dogs present for the party was Chelsie, a chocolate Labrador retriever, who has been working at the hospital for the past seven years. A couple of weeks ago, Chelsie injured her neck and was unable to walk or hold her head up, according to her owner, Jane Symionow.

"She was a therapy dog in therapy," Symionow explained. "They did an MRI on her and determined she had a slipped disc. She went through all kinds of treatment including acupuncture and water therapy. She just started walking again three days ago. They said she'll recover fully."

All the dogs have gone through obedience training and respond to verbal commands very well. This is particularly helpful in verbal therapy. Patients can give commands, and the dogs respond, Cook said.

PET VISITATIONS come in the evening, when dogs visit with patients to increase socialization, encourage interaction and provide patient relaxation. It also just makes them feel better. That was attested to by Janet Filber from Queens, N.Y.

"This is one of the best programs I've ever experienced," Filber said. "I got up this morning and had a smile on my face because I had something else to look forward to other than pain and therapy."

Filber was coming to visit her daughter, who lives in Virginia, when her colon burst on the plane from New York. "I got on the plane and passed out. The next thing I knew, it was six days later, and I was in the ICU at Mount Vernon Hospital," she recalled.

Just then, Josie came over to Filber and put her paw up on her lap. Josie belongs to Janet Lemke from Springfield. "I've been interested in this program for many years," Lemke said.

A former congressional aide on Capitol Hill before she decided to become a veterinarian, Lemke is a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Veterinary Medicine. She and Josie started in the Dog Therapy Program this past February. They have been certified in the Delta Society, a national organization for animal therapy.

Two other old-timers of the program at IMVH are Sherry Krebs from Dale City and Renee Priore of Alexandria. Krebs brings two dogs to the program — Boo Bear, a large English mastiff, and Cinnamon, a yellow Labrador retriever. Renee's dog Rocco is a golden retriever.

IN RECOGNITION for what all the dogs have done for them, the patients made treats for their four-legged friends and decorated doggy bowls. "We worked hard to put the treats together," said Laverne Ward, a patient from Suitland, Md.

As a victim of multiple sclerosis, Ward noted, "Putting the doggy bags together helped me with my motor skills. It really helped my hands."

For their treats, each dog got a specially decorated bowl filled with a toy and two biscuit bars made of all natural ingredients and decorated by the patients. There was also a special cake made especially for woofer tastes. It was cut and hand-served to each therapy dog by Cook.