Recently, I had the opportunity to write an article highlighting the Therapeutic Play Program at Seattle Children's Hospital. When Katie was a patient, we saw some pets and their human partners working in the Pet Therapy part of this valuable program, and I wanted to draw attention and support to them.
If you and your child have never encountered a therapy animal, I hope that you will someday. They are specially trained, and have gifts that can help patients in ways that other therapies cannot. Here is some of what I learned when I did the research for the article, which was published in this month's issue of City Dog Magazine.
When you think about a children’s hospital, do you picture white lab coats, doctors and therapy? If so, you’re right - and some of the lab coats you may see at Seattle Children’s Hospital belong to Labrador Retrievers, because the hospital offers its patients “Animal-Assisted Activities,” or therapeutic play. Experience shows that interaction with therapy dogs has the power to help children feel better, and to motivate them in their rehabilitation, in ways that humans alone cannot.
Rosalie Frankel, the Art Therapist/Therapeutic Play Coordinator at Seattle Children’s Hospital, tells me that the program now has 12 pet therapy teams, each comprised of a human (handler) and a pet partner (dog).
Service dogs are different from therapy dogs. A service dog’s purpose is to help a human lead a more independent life; they are custom-trained for the individual’s needs. A therapy dog’s job is to share their tender, loving care with anyone with whom they come into contact. The training they receive is different, as are the laws governing their work.
Christi Dudzik MC, LMHC, of Healing Paws, Inc. (www.healingpaws.com) and her dogs helped to start the program at Seattle Children’s in the late 1990s; the Starlight Children’s Foundation assisted in funding their work, and continues to do so. Christi is a master instructor & evaluator with an organization called the Delta Society (http://www.deltasociety.org), and says that Delta Society’s Pet Partners Program “sets the gold standard in therapy-animal registration.”
Delta requires the handler to receive training (in a workshop or home-study course), while most other organizations only train the animal. The handler and animal are then evaluated as a team, looking for partners who are proactive and supportive, with good communication. In order to maintain their Delta Society registration, teams must be re-evaluated every two years.
After being trained and registered with the Delta Society, pet teams who want to volunteer at Seattle Children’s Hospital proceed through an application process and additional training programs at the hospital. In general, therapy dogs are selected by their personality, but some dogs are not suited to this kind of work: those who don’t like strangers to pet them, who are fearful of unusual smells or sounds, are very protective of their owner, or who have poor impulse-control would not fit well into the hospital environment.
Animal-assisted therapy is beneficial for both patients and pet partner teams: it’s gratifying for the handler to make a difference in the life of a patient – and to witness miracles, from the other end of the leash. Christi says, “Dogs can get people to do things that humans can’t get them to do; dogs touch people’s souls in ways that we can’t touch them. They bring out the best in people.” It’s gratifying to the dogs, as well: studies have shown that petting a dog lowers a person’s blood pressure; it has also been demonstrated that being petted lowers a dog’s blood pressure.
Christie and Rosalie told inspiring stories about the benefits of animal-assisted therapy. While working on the burn unit in a local hospital, Christi and her pet encountered the unhappy sounds of a young burn patient enduring a painful dressing-change. After a short time, the boy careened out of the treatment room, into the corridor, yelling, “No! Don’t touch me! Don’t anybody touch me!” He saw Christi and her dog and cried, “I want to see the DOG!” He held onto that dog and wept heavy sobs into its coat. After receiving comfort from the dog’s loving presence, the boy opened his arms to his mother, and was assisted into his wheelchair.
Dogs can motivate a patient to do more than a nurse or doctor can. Rosalie told of a patient who refused to use a walker on the rehabilitation ward - she said it hurt. When asked if she would like to “walk the dog,” she not only used her walker - the caregiving team had difficulty persuading her to stop! Patients who need to improve their range-of-motion might refuse to do exercises, but would love to “throw a ball for the dog.” Some patients are so inspired by these experiences that they set a personal goal to become an animal handler when they are older.
The gift of a dog’s affection can make a vital change for the better in any person’s life, especially for a patient in the hospital. If you would like to support this program, please go to www.seattlechildrens.org and make a donation to the Therapeutic Play Fund. If you would like to find animal-assisted therapy resources in your area, contact the Delta Society.
Karen Gerstenberger blogs at Gberger (www.karengberger.blogspot.com) and is the founder & president of Katie's Comforters Guild at Seattle Children's Hospital, a guild that makes blankets and quilts for the hospital's patients. You can find out more at www.katiescomfortersguild.blogspot.com