Chelsie's retirement party was attended by her associates and clients, the latter also known as patients. Both showed their admiration and respect for a true pioneer.
Chelsie has been on the job for seven years. She was the trail blazer. Through her efforts, no matter what her personal suffering, she brought comfort and companionship that no amount of technology or modern science can provide. It's called unquestioning and undemanding love.
Chelsie is an 11-year-old chocolate brown Labrador retriever. She is Inova Mount Vernon Hospital's first therapy dog. Last Wednesday she was forced to retire because of age and a series of medical problems that robbed her of her long-term energies.
"She had throat cancer at age four, kidney surgery at age nine and last year she suffered a neck injury that forced her, a therapy dog, to go through therapy," said Chelsie's owner Jane Symionow of Alexandria.
"She was unable to walk or hold her head up. They did an MRI and determined she had slipped a disc. She went through all kinds of treatment including acupuncture and water therapy," Symionow explained.
"Now she tires in 15 to 20 minutes of helping patients. It's time for her to retire," Symionow said. "She's just running out of steam."
But that wasn't evident at her retirement party. There was a host of other therapy dogs and their owners, a cake, a banner and presents. All to honor Chelsie, their acknowledged leader.
EACH THERAPY DOG visits with patients for about an hour several times a week. "Originally they came only once a week. They were also restricted to the rehabilitation gym on the first floor of the hospital," said Amy Beth Cook, recreational therapist at IMVH.
"The policy was rewritten to allow them in the units. Now they make room visits," Cook said. Pet visitations usually come in the evening to increase socialization, encourage interaction, and provide patient relaxation, according to hospital officials.
One of Chelsie's long-time pals is Cook's "Hobo," an Old English Sheep Dog. Being tended at the party by Sherry Krebs of Dale City, Hobo was very protective of his long-time compatriot. Krebs also has two therapy dogs of her own. One, an English Mastiff named "Boo Bear" and the other, a yellow Lab named "Cinnamon."
"We have very few patients who do not want to have the dogs visit with them," Cook acknowledged. "We now have eight dogs and their owners giving their time to the hospital. There doesn't seem to be any one breed that is better suited for this than any other."
In order to become a therapy dog, one year of obedience school is required. They also must pass the K-9 good citizen test and the temperament test administered by the American Kennel Club, according to Symionow. Additionally, there is the IMVH canine interview and training session, as well as possessing certain caring characteristics.
EACH DOG IS submitted to a series of tests to measure their ability to deal with different situations. How they respond to those tests determines their acceptability and viability as a therapy dog, Cook explained.
In animal assisted therapy, the formal name for the program, dogs are an integral part of the therapeutic process. The program is designed to promote improvement in the patient's ability to function. It is performed in a variety of setting within the hospital — the patient's room, hospital hallways, individual/group therapy rooms and the physical therapy gym.
Animals assist in both occupational and physical therapy as well as speech therapy. In the former they aid in skills such as balancing, walking and coordinating muscle movements. In the latter their value is in understanding words, directions, clarity of speech and attending to a given task, among other functions.
The program has proved so successful that dogs are now being recruited at a much younger age. It is known as "Puppy Pairs."
One such example at Chelsie's party was "Chloe," a combination Newfoundland and Irish Wolf Hound. Owned by IMVH Administrator Susan Herbert and her husband, Allan, Chloe is only five and one half months old. Although Chloe is enrolled in obedience school, her youthful enthusiasm was definitely on display at the party.
"It's a lot of fun. She seems to like this specific training better than regular obedience school," Allan Herbert said. "She was four months old when we started the training. It can't begin before they have their rabies shots."
In addition to all the comraderie, Chelsie received a number of gifts including a new pillow bed, chew toys, picture frames to hold shots of the party, a variety of treats and a framed copy of "A Dog's Prayer" by Beth Norman Harris.
From the hospital's volunteer corps, she was presented with a custom-made kerchief created from a volunteer smock. It proclaimed her an IMVH Volunteer.
As separate cakes for owners and therapy dogs were being divvied up, Chelsie decided it was time for a rest and took to her new pillow bed. As she gazed out on the crowd of both canine and human friends, she seemed to personify the words from Harris' prayer:
"Treat me kindly, my beloved master, for no heart in all the world is more grateful for kindness than the loving heart of me... I will leave you knowing with the last breath I draw, my fate was ever safest in your hands."