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Champion Leads Dual Life

Best in Show winner serves as therapy dog at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital.

It's not often that patients at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital's Rehabilitation Center get a personalized visit from an international celebrity. But, that's exactly what happened last Thursday.

What made it even more unusual — this celebrity had four legs.

James, the English Springer Spaniel, who lives with his owner, Teresa Patton of Fairfax Station, was judged Best In Show at this year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show making him the overall champion of the 2007 competition. He also serves as a therapy dog at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital.

"James has been doing pet therapy since he was 9 weeks old," said Patton, sitting in the Rehabilitation Center with James, who was visiting a patient recovering from open heart surgery. "Now that the show is over, he needs to get back to reality."

Patton has had James since birth. "He was born right into my hands on June 8 six and half years ago. I've had a lot of fun raising and training him," she said. "Training is a life-long endeavor. It starts when they are 5 or 6 weeks old and just continues."

In addition to his recent triumph in New York City, James has won two qualifying titles and he is working on a Rally Title and Free Style Dogging Dancing, according to Patton. "He's really a big band fan," she said.

The pet rehabilitation therapy program helps patients who have suffered from strokes, traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries or other severe conditions to recover and reach individualized therapy goals, according to Jessica Eitel, animal assisted therapy specialist at IMVH.

Patients with physical limitations can become more active simply petting a dog or playing fetch. Patients with speech control issues can verbalize basic commands to improve their speaking ability, according to therapy research.

THE PET THERAPY program at IMVH, which is divided into two parts, started approximately 10 years ago. One element is animal assisted therapy and the other is pet visitations. The first works with patients to help them get through their therapy sessions. The second is primarily geared to lifting the spirits of patients while confined to the hospital.

Pet visitations normally take place in the evening when dogs visit with patients to increase socialization, encourage interaction and provide patient relaxation, according to the program guidelines.

In animal assisted therapy, a dog is an integral part of the therapeutic process. This program is designed to promote improvement in the patient's ability to function and is performed in a variety of venues within the hospital.

Animals assist in both occupational and physical therapy as well as speech therapy. In the former, they work in area of balancing, walking, and coordinating muscle movements. In the latter their value is in understanding words, directions, clarity of speech, and attending to specific tasks.

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