How Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort and Care
Pass through certain wards of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and you may catch the wagging tail end of a special kind of caregiver – the therapy dog. Unsurprisingly to anyone who loves dogs, the impact these visitors have on their patients is measurable and immediate.
Canine Therapy Corps (CTC) has worked with Northwestern Medicine for over a decade, most recently partnering for a room-to-room therapy dog visitation program that has been active since 2010. Interactions with therapy dogs have been shown to improve moods, lower blood pressure and reduce heart rate, pain and anxiety. Additional studies have shown that visits can provide significant reduction in pain and emotional distress and contribute to a positive effect on satisfaction with hospital stay in patients suffering from chronic pain or after joint replacement.
Cheese Fries and Cheering Up Patients
Patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital see that research comes to life when they meet Sedona. Sedona is a five-year-old golden retriever who loves long walks, swimming and going to Portillo’s for cheese fries. She’s also a lifelong therapy dog – Sedona began her training as a puppy when she joined her big brother, Stanley, while he prepared for his CTC certification test.
Sedona was a natural and it wasn’t long before she was making the rounds, visiting patients on six floors of the Feinberg Pavilion and Prentice Women’s Hospital, including the orthopaedic surgical floor.
“Many of the patients in the orthopaedic surgical unit have a great deal of pain after surgery and canine therapy is a great comfort for them,” says Lori, Sedona and Stanley’s owner and handler. “I can’t tell you how many times patients in this unit have said to me and other CTC dog teams, ‘I was having a difficult day with my pain, but this visit has been a real relief. Thank you for sharing your dog with me.’”
Lori is a volunteer with CTC and is also a Program Leader for Northwestern Memorial Hospital, meaning she on-boards new dog teams and organizes a monthly calendar for visits and outreach events. She first joined in March 2012, when Stanley was certified, and Sedona joined the team that November.
“Working with a trainer can make all the difference for therapy dogs. I trained with Daniel McElroy and he not only trained my dog, but he also showed me how to be a good handler,” says Lori. “CTC sees many wonderful dogs, but it’s difficult for them to pass if their owners don’t have good handling skills. Our dogs can only be as good as we show them how to be.”
Sit, Stay, Serve
To work with CTC, aspiring therapy dogs must pass an intensive exam that includes 14 exercises, which entail obedience commands – like sit, stay, down, come, heel – and should show comfort away from their handler and with strangers and medical equipment, as well as resistance to barking and jumping. A passing performance will also show the dog can be gentle when receiving treats and affection.
Once certified, CTC dogs may participate in two types of programs: Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal-Assisted Activity (AAA). AAT programs are therapeutic and goal-oriented and the dogs, like Sedona, do activities with patients to help them with mental, physical and emotional limitations. The CTC program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital provides AAA services, which aim to bring comfort and companionship to patients and their loved ones.
“One of my most favorite displays of the human-animal bond was when Sedona and I visited a patient that had a large surgical scar on the side of his head,” Lori remembers. “I was told the patient was very depressed and when he saw Sedona, he got out of bed and sat on the floor to wrap his arms around her. Since it didn’t look comfortable, I asked him if he would like to lie with her in bed if I could get approval. This man never really spoke, but the contentment between Sedona and him as they lay together watching TV and sleeping was meditational. It was like they had an instantaneous, unspoken love for one another and nothing around them seemed to matter. His serious, sad look when we entered the room turned to warmth and smiles.”
CTC fosters these types of experiences at hospitals and facilities like Northwestern Memorial Hospital to contribute to a positive patient experience. The strength of the human-animal bond can encourage individuals facing difficult challenges and therapy dogs work hand-in-paw with care teams to improve patients’ physical and psychological health and well-being.