Mind & Spirit

A Healing Hand From Man’s Best Friend


Health care is going to the dogs – and that’s a good thing. See what this Arlington Heights hospital is doing to comfort patients during their stay.

Stephanie, a patient at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, enjoys a vist from Caesar, a boxer/shepherd mix, as part of the hospital’s animal-assisted therapy program. (Karla Nagy photo)

Stephanie, a patient at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, enjoys a vist from Caesar, a boxer/shepherd mix, as part of the hospital’s animal-assisted therapy program. (Karla Nagy photo)

In the lobby of Northwest Community Hospital (NCH) in Arlington Heights, staff and visitors alike stop to talk with volunteer Kathy King, but really, it’s her partner they’re interested in. Her dog Caesar, a boxer/shepherd mix, is obviously used to the attention.

King and Caesar are part of the NCH Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) program, where teams of volunteer handlers and their canine companions make room visits to patients, to aid in their recovery and treatment. It was begun in 2007 by Diane Colville, then manager of Cardiopulmonary Health and Rehabilitation at NCH; she has since moved to Florida.

“She modeled it after the program at Edwards Hospital in Naperville,” says King, who joined in August 2007. “We started with 18 teams, visiting patients in two units: pediatrics and ambulatory infusion. Now, we have 75 teams, and we go just about everywhere in the hospital. We’ve expanded so much in a short time. Patients are asked when they’re admitted if they’d like a dog visit.”

Four handler/canine teams visit the hospital daily, including holidays, during day and night shifts. The teams have an office where they gather and pick up their lists of requested visits. Teams are supposed to make their rounds in about two hours, but it can be hard to stay on schedule.

“Some patients don’t want you to leave, and one of the hardest things for me to learn at first was time management,” Tabak says. “Daisy and I don’t always finish in two hours, but you just hate to disappoint any patients who have requested a visit.”

The dogs sport green bandanas embroidered with their names and a round patch with a paw print identifying them as part of the program. Their handlers have the same patch on the sleeves of their shirts. Both handler and dog must wear official NCH ID badges, and Tabak holds hers and Daisy’s side by side.

“Mine has the red volunteer stripe with just my photo,” she points out. “Hers has the green stripe, and next to her photo is the NCH logo. This is the same badge the doctors and nurses get. That shows where the dogs rate here!”

The concept of AAT has been around for centuries; the first documented case was in 1792, at an asylum in England. During the 19th century, the presence of animals in sanitariums in Europe was common, with records indicating that it significantly reduced the need for drugs and restraints.

The first documented use of AAT in the U.S. is from 1919. Serious studies weren’t conducted in here until the 1960s, but it’s been only in the last decade that research by such groups as the American Heart Association has validated the specific medical benefits of AAT.

NCH has done its own assessments. “People with dog visits are in for less time and use less medication than those without,” says King. “And it’s easy to see why. As soon as patients see the dog, their faces light up and they’re all smiles.”

Larger dogs like Caesar sit on chairs next to the beds, where patients can pet them. Smaller dogs like Daisy are allowed on the beds, on top of a clean linen. Dogs are bathed within 24 hours of their shifts, and patients’ hands are sanitized before and after the visit. Each dog has its own “business card,” with its name and photo, and information such as breed, age, gender and favorite toys and treats. The dogs seem to intuitively understand their jobs.

“If the patient is better, the dog is more animated, and if someone is sicker, the dog is quieter,” says King. “We have so many stories. The elderly especially seem to respond, more than the kids, and they talk about past pets. Sometimes, they think it is their dog from the past. It’s a very moving thing to witness.”

Says Tabak: “Some visits can be so funny. One I call ‘My Big Fat Greek Hospital Visit.’ The room was full of a huge Greek family who all just loved Daisy. They were all talking and petting her and transmitting live video of Daisy over their phones. It was so fun. I’ve even had entire visits conducted in a different language.”

After a visit from Caesar, patient Stephanie of Northbrook says, “It’s the second-best thing to seeing my own dog.”

Another patient, Phyllis of Arlington Heights, interrupts her hallway walk to pet Caesar. “It makes me sad, because we just lost our own dog last month,” she says. “But it’s comforting, too.”
Beatrice from Schaumburg, set to be released the next day, gets a farewell visit from Daisy. “It feels great when the dogs come by,” she says. “I always enjoyed their visits.”

Not that they can’t provide other kinds of therapy.

“We introduce the program at our joint replacement therapy classes,” says Diane Ryzack, Advanced Practice Nurse of Orthopedics at NCH, and clinical liaison for the program. “The dogs help to reduce stress and lower heart rate and blood pressure, but we use them to encourage physical therapy, too.”

Some patients who need to improve their cognition are given pop quizzes about what they’ve read on the doggie business card; others who need to increase mobility are asked to brush the dog. “One woman who had refused for days to brush her own hair picked up the brush and groomed Caesar,” King says.

Some patients are quizzed on what they’ve read on the doggie business card; others who need to increase mobility are asked to brush the dog. “One woman who had refused for days to brush her own hair picked up the brush and groomed Caesar,” King says.

The dogs have an impact on family members as well. “We’ve had people pass away, and been asked to stay with the family,” King says. “We’ve had two families request that their therapy dog attend the wake and the funeral.”

And don’t discount the handlers; the human companionship is an important component of AAT. “We’re company for the patients, so we need to know how to communicate, how to bring them out and get them talking,” says King.

“And when to be quiet,” adds Tabak, who joined in 2008, following an extended hospital stay. “The longer you’re in the program, the easier it is to read the patient.”

Each year, NCH holds evaluation and training for those interested in joining its AAT program. Dogs must respond immediately to the commands “sit,” “stay” and “down.” They mustn’t be sensitive to strangers nor be too dependent on the handler – what King and Tabak call “velcro dogs.”

“We put them through all kinds of tests,” King says. “We have five handlers walk their dogs to the center of the room and stand within two feet of each other, and the dogs can’t touch. We have a big, burly guy pound on the door and shout to be let in, to see if the dogs can refrain from barking. We make them walk past a dog biscuit on the floor and ignore it, because you don’t want your dog eating things it finds on the floor in a hospital. It’s tough. Last year, 55 dogs tried out, and 12 made it. Our attrition rate is 15 to 20 dogs per year.”

Owners, too, must pass muster, by being flexible with scheduling and open to meeting new people.
“Daisy’s full of energy when we arrive, but after two hours, she’s tired,” says Tabak. “I am, too.”

The program survives on donations. Costs include training, the doggie business cards, office supplies, a mandatory fecal test for each dog every six months and, of course, treats.

“The dogs don’t get treats until after their shift, and they all know where the treat shelf is in the office,” Tabak says, laughing.

Walking the hospital corridors, both Caesar and Daisy are lavished with attention from nurses, doctors, orderlies and dietitians.

“The staff loves the program,” says Debra Micaletti, RN. “We have stressful jobs, and the dogs calm us down, too.”

Dietary Aide Bridget O’Shea takes a few minutes to pet Daisy. “I don’t usually get a chance to meet the dogs,” she says. “Halloween is especially fun, when they and their handlers come in costume. I love the interaction I see between the dogs and the patients. They just brighten up immediately. I love when I see patients playing catch with them, or in walkers, or taking the dogs for a walk.”

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