A Paw Full of Love Therapy Dogs Make a Difference in the Lives of Children and Adults

Jesse Hagerman says magical things happen when therapy dogs visit Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield and interact with the patients.

“They light up; it helps them forget why they are here,” said the hospital’s child life supervisor. “These dogs can evoke wonderful responses, and I have seen children really open up around them. “It decreases the anxiety and stress of being hospitalized and enhances self-esteem because the dogs offer non-judgmental, non-threatening attention and give the children unconditional love.”

The canines and trainers that visit the hospital come from K-9 for Kids Pediatric Therapy Unit, a volunteer, nonprofit organization that serves children in Western Mass. and Connecticut. It was established by president/director Melissa Kielbasa of Sandy Hills Farms in Westfield in 1999 at the request of the Melha Shrine Unit, and has expanded to serve other pediatric medical facilities, camp and library programs, school systems, and a youth detention facility.

“The visits are designed to offer emotional support,” Kielbasa said, adding that some handler/dog teams also work with adults in nursing homes and hospitals.

The K-9 program includes dogs who like to cuddle as well as a number who have been trained to do unusual tricks and entertain children. “One dog will hide on command, and the kids think it’s hysterical,” Kielbasa said. Another rolls over on her back and drinks out of a baby bottle which it holds with its front paws. “My dog sneezes on cue. We have dogs that dance, and we have a talking pug that does a yodel that sounds like ’I love you.’

“And they all love to be petted,” she continued. “Other species might not tolerate it, but dogs are looking for relationships and just want to please people.”

Research shows the interaction between therapy pets and patients is indeed pleasant. The specially trained dogs offer valuable benefits to children as well as adults in settings that include hospitals, hospice units, nursing homes, assisted-living centers, and rehabilitation facilities, to name a few.

Diane Mintz, executive vice president of Spectrum Home Health and Hospice Care, a program of Jewish Geriatric Services in Longmeadow, says its hospice patients and the families it serves find pet therapy extremely beneficial.

The organization works with Bright Spot Therapy Dogs Inc., another all-volunteer, nonprofit group founded by Cynthia Hinckley of Westhampton.

“The dogs are very sensitive to how the person is feeling and are very gentle. When they visit, it makes people smile and brings joy into their day,” Mintz said. “It’s a bright spot for them. Sometimes, when a patient is in a declining state and we gently introduce the dog, they say endearing things to it. It’s comforting for them to have a dog there.”

She noted that the pets are content to simply relax by a person’s side.

Hinckley says dogs from Bright Spot visit hospitals, public and private day and residential schools, psychiatric facilities, senior centers, rehabilitation facilities, and schools with reading programs for children. “Whenever I leave a visit, I know I have made at least one person happier, more comfortable, and less lonely,” she said.

Studies have shown that therapy dogs provide comfort and facilitate learning, and researchers continue to seek empirical evidence to support the theory. The University of California Irvine has begun a four-year, $2.2 million study to learn whether pet therapy can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder improve their social skills and control their symptoms. Meanwhile, other studies in recent years have focused on therapy dogs and people with Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition, last year, a Wall Street Journal article chronicled research that proves a few minutes of stroking a dog reduces the stress hormone cortisol, while a study done at Monmouth Medical Center in New Jersey showed patients waiting to have magnetic resonance imaging (an MRI) found interacting with a therapy dog soothing.

Intense Training

Bright Spot has 90 dogs and 80 volunteers in its program. There is no fee for its services, but the dogs and their handlers must undergo specialized training before the animals are certified to work in therapeutic settings.

Hinckley has been engaged in pet therapy for 20 years, and founded her program in 2004. She became passionate about the mission when she went into a psychiatric facility with one of her dogs and a patient who hadn’t spoken in 20 years began to talk.

“It changed my life,” she said, adding that she runs classes and certifies dogs and their trainers, and has evaluated and mentored hundreds of therapy-dog teams in Western Mass. and Connecticut.

The first step is a phone interview. “The most important thing is their temperament,” Hinckley said, adding that she asks a series of questions to determine if the dog has ever shown any aggression. She also advises owners to take their dogs everywhere they go because the animals must remain calm in a variety of settings.

During training sessions, they work on obedience and control. Dogs must obey commands at all times, never jump on people, and not bark incessantly for any reason. Surprisingly, although some dogs do well during training, they don’t do well when they encounter unusual situations.

Hinckley said one dog panicked at a nursing home when it saw someone approach who was using a walker. “Therapy dogs have to be able to deal with loud, piercing noises and equipment such as hospital carts, food trays, medical devices, and machinery, Hinckley explained. “And if they are visiting children, they have to be able to deal with the unexpected. Some dogs are better with children, while others are more suited to adults or the elderly.”

When she certifies a dog, she makes a recommendation about the type of facility and population it is suited to work with. However, the owner must also be comfortable with the setting. “I recently evaluated a dog that would be fabulous for hospice work, but the owner said she couldn’t do that,” she told HCN.

Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton and Bright Spot formed a working partnership in 2005. “They do a wonderful job and have dogs that are uniquely suited to a hospital environment,” said Robin Kline, the hospital’s director of volunteer services, adding that CDH is grateful to Hinckley because she worked closely with them for several years to get the program off the ground.

However, before dogs and trainers are allowed into the hospital, Kline conducts an additional screening that includes immunization records and a criminal record check on the handler.

Once that is complete, remarkable things can occur.

Kline says the dogs help patients cope with depression, loneliness, and feelings of isolation, and also stimulate social interaction. She explained that, when the handler introduces himself or herself and the dog, it often sparks conversations about a pet the patient had as a child or a dog they have at home.

“It’s part of the magic that occurs with therapy dogs,” she said. “There are really wonderful moments because the handlers are skilled at creating connections and can help patients who haven’t responded or communicated much. And the dogs have a calming effect on patients. Their presence makes the hospital environment more homelike and brings some relief to the stress of being ill.”

If the dog is small and the patient doesn’t have health issues that prevent it from getting in their bed, they often end up cuddling with the animals. “We have had some beautiful little dogs on beds, and the patients love it; it really cheers them up,” Kline said.

The program operates on the North 3 ward and in the psychiatric unit of the hospital, where the dogs are introduced in a group setting. And if people are having a difficult day, that can change when they interact with the gentle canines.

“A dog can really improve someone’s mood. When patients pet a dog and say, ’I love animals’ or ’this is such a good dog,’ they are clearly having a positive experience,” Kline said, adding that staff members really appreciate the volunteers who bring their pets to the hospital.

Creating Relationships

Kielbasa also trains therapy dogs at Sandy Meadow Farms. In addition to a general course, she runs an approved, seven-week pediatric therapy dog unit training class.

But taking the class and passing the certification exam are not enough to qualify for her K-9 program. The dogs and handlers must also pass the K-9s for Kids Performance and Evaluation Test and the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Test. In addition, their handlers undergo background checks.

K-9 teams are used in the Read to Rover program at Franklin Avenue School in Westfield, which was designed to help children who have difficulty with reading.

When the dogs arrive in the classroom, all the students are allowed to pet them before they are sent off with the children in the program.

“It helps with their self-esteem because their classmates think it’s pretty cool. Plus, it provides an opportunity for them to sit and read to a very attentive and loving audience,” said teacher Carly Bannish, explaining that the child sits on a beanbag, the dog sits on a little carpet, and the trainer sits nearby on a chair and is available if the child needs help with a word.

The program has resulted in an increase in reading fluency and comprehension. “The dogs are a non-judgmental audience, so it is a very safe environment for the children to practice something that may be difficult. The dogs give unconditional love, whereas adults correct children or try to help when they make a mistake, which can get pretty frustrating,” Bannish said.

Kielbasa concurs. “The dog doesn’t care if the child reads correctly or mispronounces a word, which can be embarrassing if they are reading aloud in their classroom,” she said.

Children who are hospitalized can suffer from anxiety and stress, and Hagerman said the K-9 dogs also improve life at Shriners. “The environment here can be intimidating as there are so many things that are new to children. The dogs make them feel more at home, and if a child is having a down day, the dogs can really lift their spirits.”

Visits take place in the hospital auditorium because animals are not allowed in the direct-care areas due to stringent infection-control policies, which include a handwashing protocol. However, all children who are medically able to attend are invited.

Peyton Malloy entered Shriners Jan. 9 and was there until the end of the third week in March. “It was so exciting for him every time the dogs came to visit. He looked forward to it,” said his mother, Anne Malloy.

The 6-year-old would hold the small dogs on his lap and pet them and play fetch with the larger breeds and try to make them do tricks. “He would stay for the entire hour. He absolutely loved them, and it made a real difference,” Anne said. “It was something he looked forward to. He would peek out of the door to see if they were coming. And when the talking pug said, ’I love you,’ he would say it back to the dog.”

Hagerman said the opportunity to play or cuddle with a dog has inspired children to leave their rooms, which can improve mobility and help with their mood. “It provides a diversion from the normal hospital routine, helps them pass the time, and is something to remember that is positive,” she said, adding that staff members take pictures of the children with the dogs, which they are given to bring home.

Kielbasa agrees. “It takes their mind off of things, especially if they are facing surgery or doctor’s appointments. And we do just as much with the parents as the children, as they are also nervous. It doesn’t solve anything, but it helps with what they have to deal with that day,” she said.

Playing with the dogs can also aid in physical therapy, as the interaction involves movement that is fun, rather than repetitive. And in some cases, children who have been hospitalized for months have developed strong bonds with the canines.

That also happens in the hospice setting. Mintz says it’s not unusual for a dog to cuddle in bed with a hospice patient. “It is very therapeutic because relaxation takes place when that occurs. And when our patients pet the dogs or talk to them, it distracts them from their symptoms. It is also a way to help them feel connected. Sometimes there is an opportunity for a patient to be involved with a dog for a few weeks or months, so a relationship develops.”

Kielbasa has also seen dramatic changes during visits a team makes to a youth-detention facility. “When we first started going there, the girls were tough and cold. But after a couple of months, they turned into marshmallows when they saw the dogs walk in. They got excited, wanted them to do tricks, and giggled and talked to each other,” she said.

Healing Touch

Laura Coon is a nurse manager at the Linda Manor Extended Care Facility in Leeds, and says Hinckley and her dogs are a welcome sight. “The residents light up when she arrives. So many people had a dog when they were at home, and the visits are calming for them because the animals love unconditionally and people warm up to their warmth. It’s lovely to see.”

It’s also a lovely and love-filled experience for all who take part in these programs.

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