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Pet therapy programs help patients in rehab, physical therapy and more

Photo: sleeping dogs


pet therapy program at Cedars-Sinai integrates dogs into physical therapy, rehab, more


From the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center media release:

Janie, a volunteer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, pads down the hall to her next stop. She trots into the hospital room, panting, sits down on the floor, and pokes her nose over the edge of the bed. She nudges the patient's hand, and licks it -- but just a little bit. She's been taught that it's bad manners to lick patients excessively.

Janie's a popular volunteer. She's been coming to the cardiac units and the AIDS unit for a little over six months now. Patients know her by name. Patients' families know her by name -- even those who have never met her. In the short time she's been volunteering, this golden retriever has become a Cedars- Sinai institution.

Janie, who was trained as a Seeing Eye Dog, is a part of an innovative pet therapy program that Cedars-Sinai has operated since 1996. The basis on which the program is based is simple: Some patients heal significantly faster and better if they are visited by a friendly animal.

Studies show that the uncomplicated affection and unconditional acceptance a companion animal offers seem to act as a sort of lightning rod, reducing anxiety and relieving depression, both of which inhibit healing. They can also serve as an active part of the healing process, says Rickann Clapp, the Recreation Therapist who supervises the pet therapy program in Cedars-Sinai's Rehabilitation department.

"We use the dogs as an active part of the healing process. If the patient is working on arm strength or balance we incorporate the dog in the exercise. We'll have the patient pet the dog with the weaker arm, or walk the dog down the hall. Sometimes we'll take the patient and dog outside. A simple game of 'fetch' can become an exercise in balance, vocalization, range of arm movement, and socialization. We can also tell how oriented a patient is by having them name the parts of the dog."

"The dogs are also great for socialization," she continues. "Some patients will begin talking to a dog before they'll begin talking to a person. I've had patients tell me that they like dogs better than therapists. Of course, not every patient benefits from pet therapy, and not all dogs are appropriate to all therapies, but we match the dogs up to best fit the needs of appropriate patients."

Liz Feder and her husband, Jim volunteer with Janie each week. "It's absolutely incredible," says Feder "We have patients and relatives stop us in the halls and on the elevator; they all love Janie. She brings smiles to a lot of people." It's not always easy though, says Feder. "Sometimes it's tough -- we might know we're visiting someone who won't be there when we next visit. Janie usually sits in a chair by the bed, and the patients talk to her and touch her. In regular cases, if the patient is dog person, we can put a clean sheet on the bed and she gets right into bed with them -- somehow she knows just what to do."

That knowledge sometimes has surprising results. In one case, says Feder, a doctor asked if Janie could visit one of his patients who was not in coma but had refused to talk to anyone for weeks. Janie came in, sat in the chair and put her paws on the rail. Immediately the patient started talking to her and petting her. "The doctor was in awe," says Feder.

Bailey, a Bichon Frise, volunteers in Rehabilitation twice a week. "People sometimes think he's stuffed," says his owner Lynn Ziv. "I remember one man in particular. He was really depressed, not talking. The doctor asked if I could take Bailey in for a visit. When we walked in the man was lying on his back, not saying or doing anything. I leaned over the rail and started to talk to him, but he was simply not responding. Then Bailey started "talking," making his dog noises. Suddenly the man looked up and said, "Oh my god, that's a real dog! I thought it was a stuffed animal.'"

Because of the close patient contact, animals that participate in the program are carefully screened by Dr. John Young, M.D., Director of Comparative Medicine at Cedars-Sinai. Size and breed aren't important -- the animals now visiting the hospital range from a four-pound Yorkshire terrier to an 85-pound French sheepdog -- but the animal's health and personality are, says Dr. Young. Dogs are given a thorough physical examination and observed in a wide variety of circumstances. "We want to be sure the animal is healthy."

"We also evaluate the dogs' personalities; we want animals that enjoy traveling, and that are stoic and won't be frightened by carts or noise. We make sure that the animal has no areas that are sensitive to touch, that the dog is interactive but not hyper, not a nervous biter, and doesn't lick excessively. We also make sure that the dog isn't overly fixated on its owner. Even though the animal is always with its owner in the hospital, I take it away from the owner to make sure it doesn't suffer from separation anxiety."

Currently more than 20 dog/owner teams participate in the hospital's two pet therapy programs. "The best human volunteers have patience and are responsive to the patient, staff and family members," says Barbara Cowen, the licensed clinical social worker who runs the Pet Therapy program in the AIDS unit and Cardiology. "They take great joy and pride in seeing how their dog is making a difference in people's lives."


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