Northwestern Medicine

A Helping Paw: Trained Therapy Dogs Aid with Chronically Ill Patients

Northwestern Memorial Hospital February 28, 2011

Puppy love helps improve quality of life

CHICAGO, IL – Lexi trots down the hall of the inpatient oncology unit at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital and is greeted with smiles, cheers, and even a few tears. The anticipated visitors sense the excitement, but understand Lexi is there to do her job and she gets right to work visiting 54 year old cancer patient Leonard Pal. Lexi is not your typical visitor; she’s a Golden Retriever bringing distraction and cheer to very sick patients. The visits are part of a new animal-assisted therapy program launched at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in conjunction with the Canine Therapy Corps in Chicago.

“Who wouldn’t mind getting a visit by a beautiful red head,” said Pal about the five year old Golden Retriever. Pal is being treated for colon cancer which has metastasized to his liver. He’s in and out of the hospital undergoing tests and receiving medicine to manage his pain. “This is the highlight of my day; I was waiting for her all morning,” added Pal as Lexi cozies up to his bedside.

The program began this summer on the oncology unit of Prentice Women’s Hospital, part of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, where Lexi, Willow and Piper, the newest dog in the program, visit cancer, palliative care and hospice patients. The program has been so well received, that it has been recently expanded to include visits with patients in the women care unit as well as the surgical floor where many of the patients have paralysis and are in the hospital long-term.

“We are excited to be able to provide a welcomed break in the day for patients, many of whom are in the hospital for long term care. Interacting with the dogs has a noticeable impact on their mood and enhances their well being,” said Patricia Murphy, RN, MSN, director of oncology nursing at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Research suggests that visits with animals may improve patient outcomes, decrease length of hospital stay, help with confusion, depression and manage pain symptoms.

“It’s never fun to be at the hospital. It’s uncomfortable to have needles in your arm and scary to undergo tests, but when I see the dogs I forget about my treatment. They ease the burden of being in the hospital and really make a big difference in my day,” said Pal.

Interaction with animals has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, increase sensory stimulation, inspire a sense of purpose, increase social interactions with staff and reduce loneliness by creating a sense of companionship.

If a patient is unable to receive a visit from the dogs because of infection control, open wounds or compromised immune systems, the dogs are trained to stand in the doorway and wave to the patient. 

“Anyone who has a pet knows the joy they bring to our lives. Sharing that joy is so rewarding,” said Judith Jaffe, trained dog handler for Canine Therapy Corps and Willow’s owner.

Lexi and Willow not only bring a smile to the faces of patients like Pal, but visitors and the hospital staff are always excited to see the pups. “The oncology unit can be very stressful for staff, families and the patients. The dogs bring great energy and happiness when they come to visit. It really brightens everyone’s day,” said Jessica Palis, RN, clinical coordinator at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Learn more about the Canine Therapy Corps*.

Media Contact

Media Relations
Legal Information

By clicking on these websites, you are leaving the Northwestern Medicine website. These websites are independent resources. Northwestern Medicine does not operate or control the content of these websites. By visiting these websites, you agree to this third party’s terms of use for their website.