From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

‘Pet therapists’ help speed recovery of patients young and old

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the May 3, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

Sacred Heart Medical Center has had a pet therapy program since 1993. Dogs that have been certified as “pet therapists” and their handlers are official volunteers in what is called Pet-Assisted Therapy, visiting patients on a monthly schedule.

In the last couple of months, though, the pet therapy program has “really taken off,” said Greg Renner, who directs the program at Sacred Heart. New handlers have joined, and current handlers have added animals.

“We’ve had to expand the schedule, adding an extra ward and an extra day,” he said.

On this particular day, April 12, Cedrick, a five-year-old Golden Retriever, was the pet therapist on duty, accompanied by Carol Tompson, his owner-handler. Nurse Cathy Paxson laid out a sheet on the bed, and Cedrick carefully climbed up. Paul Toone, an adult patient at Sacred Heart’s oncology ward, wasted no time in rubbing his hands through the animal’s silky fur. Then Paul got out his harmonica and played a short melody for Cedrick, who didn’t mind a bit. Paul also got his picture taken with Cedrick, to hang on the bulletin board near his bed.

LeVeta Thompson was the volunteer escort for Cedrick’s visit. Her role is to assist with the handler’s needs. She takes photos for patients if they wish and she makes sure they wash their hands when the visit ends. A nurse or other representative from each ward also tags along, to let advise as to which patients have requested visits and to make sure medical conditions permit the pet contact.

Twenty-one-month old Perrin in pediatrics also loved Cedrick. The sheet was laid on the floor this time, by child life specialist Krista Roback, and Cedrick lay down there so that Perrin might pet him. Perrin did more than pet Cedrick, though; the boy used the dog as a pillow, and the animal took the show of affection in stride. Perrin got his picture taken, too.

Cedrick also visited Henry, who is seven. The dog was carefully placed on the bed so Henry could pet him. Henry remembered Cedrick from a previous visit – “It was a fun time to see him again,” said Henry.

Almost everyone responds to Cedrick, or the other pet volunteers, when they see them, whether it’s patients, family members, hospital employees or people in the elevators. Eyes light up and smiles are soon forthcoming. Questions about the animal are followed by affectionately shared memories of family pets.

Hospice of Spokane is in the process of writing protocols, guidelines and rules for pet visits, and eventually pet therapists may be a part of Hospice care.

Carol Byrnes of Spokane, who owns an animal-training school called Diamonds in the Ruff, was instrumental in helping start the pet therapy program in 1992 at the request of two people: Ashley Talarico at Deaconess Hospital and Gracia Anderson at Sacred Heart. Both women worked in child services, and both had become aware of the medical research which documented the physical benefits of human interaction with animals, such as lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels.

Byrnes’ dog, a whippet named Rio, was the first to set “paws” in a hospital (at Deaconess in 1992) as a volunteer. Byrnes remembered they had to sneak in through a back hallway and use the service elevator. That attitude has changed and now pet therapists are routine in hospitals and nursing homes.

The primary requirement for an animal to become a hospital volunteer is a calm and gentle temperament which, said Byrnes, “they are born with.” Other requirements: The animals must be healthy and free of disease; they should not be easily startled by the things going on around them or bothered by the different smells and noises of a hospital or nursing home. They need to be obedient to their handler’s commands.

Even the animals’ fur is taken into consideration, since it must be bathed and dried in the 24-hour period prior to a visit. The animals are carefully screened in all these areas by an organization called the Delta Society and must pass the Delta certification requirements before they can become hospital volunteers.

The handlers’ own personality plays a big role in the pet therapy process. Handlers also should enjoy people, be good listeners and empathetic to the needs of others.

People who volunteer their pets say it can be expensive, keeping the animals healthy, getting them trained and keeping them certified. But when the smiles go ’round, then, said Byrnes, that’s when the work and the expense become worth it.

Cedrick’s last stop was a geriatric ward, where a number of elderly folks were visiting in the lounge area. He went around to those in the group, but stopped by a quiet man sitting alone on a couch, who seemed in need of extra attention. Cedrick got up on the sofa and lay next to the man who rubbed the golden fur, and a woman commented, “I think you’re in love.” In his quiet voice, the man answered, “I think I am.”

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