Animals bring miracles to patients

by Larry Chabot

Two by two, they came into the Westwood Mall on a Sunday morning: human with large dog, human with medium dog, human with pocket-size dog, even a cat—various breeds and people, here for the ‘test.’ With a clacking of dog nails on the floor, they moved on, all well-behaved and full of purpose.
paw-548634_640“What’s this about?” we asked, and learned for the first time about therapy dogs.
We learned these are not service animals, which directly assist humans with disabilities. Rather, they’re trained to give affection and comfort to people in hospitals, elder homes, mental institutions, schools and in stressful areas like disaster zones. Mary Lee Kirkum of Marquette provides a beautiful example of a therapy dog in action: she and her Spaniel, Paige, visited a woman in a nursing home who was extremely upset by news that a good friend had cancer. Paige jumped into her lap, got petted and both the animal and patient fell sound asleep—a perfect example of the effect of a therapy dog.
One area leader of this movement is Patty Cornish of Ishpeming, a nurse and case manager at U.P. Health Plan, and one of two therapy animal and handler evaluators in the Upper Peninsula (Kirkum is the other). Cornish got involved seven years ago through a friend. She and her Irish Wolfhound, Pog (Irish for “kiss”), bring comfort and cheer wherever they go, and this is no small feet because Pog weighs 165 pounds and stretches to seven feet while standing.
“I have three dogs,” she said, “but Pog is the only one with the temperament for it; the other two would never make it. He’s always under control, sweet and calm. People can’t help but smile when he comes into their hospital rooms. I’ve watched people’s hands flutter as they reach to pet him.”
The story began when Corporal William Wynne claimed a Yorkshire Terrier found wandering on a World War II battlefield in the Pacific and called her Smoky. Before long, Smoky became a war hero. At a Philippine airbus, the Signal Corps had to run a communication wire through a seventy-foot long, eight-inch diameter pipe beneath a runway. Dirt partially clogged the pipe, but Wynne tied the communication wire to Smoky’s collar, ran to the other end of the pipe and called Smoky, who crawled through and into Wynne’s arms. Thanks to Smoky, there was no need to move the base’s forty planes or dig up the runway.
Smoky’s therapy career began when Wynne was hospitalized and his buddies brought the dog in to cheer him up. Smoky became so popular with the wounded that the hospital head—Dr. Charles Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame—allowed Smoky to go on rounds. Her therapy work continued for twelve more years.
While Smokey was scoring points in the Pacific, American nurse Elaine Smith saw how patients reacted to visits from a chaplain’s dog in an English hospital and started a dog-training program in the United States. Others soon noticed the happy ability of dogs to relieve stress, lower blood pressure and raise morale.
One publicized case involved a twelve-year-old Spaniel brought to a Colorado nursing home. When patients spoke directly to the dog, it looked at them as if listening to every word. Staff members noted that some residents got comfort from merely holding the dog’s leash. One resident in a wheelchair grabbed the leash, closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, probably thinking of the days when she had a pet.
According to Cornish, Marquette’s program began when Brad Jackson, a physical therapist at Marquette General Hospital (MGH), saw the need for dogs in community health care so people could benefit from the “unconditional love that only a dog can give.”
Thus was born the hospital’s Upper Michigan Dog Therapy Partnership, which oversees the pet therapy volunteers who visit there (only Delta Society certified pet therapy dogs are permitted to visit MGH patients). The hospital supported the Delta training and certification of area dog handlers, donated used equipment like wheelchairs and encouraged expansion of the program into the community.
The Superiorland Pet Partners formed in 2004 to promote using dogs outside the MGH system, and now has twenty teams visiting hospitals, nursing homes, health fairs, bite prevention clinics, Peter White Public Library, Senior Expo, Bay Cliff Health Camp and the Marquette Fourth of July parade.
Therapy dogs do especially well with the elderly, who often dearly miss the cherished pets they once had. During what’s called “Bow Wow Time” at the assisted living facility in Marquette, handlers move from room to room for requested visits. Well over half the residents are on the list.
“Some residents enjoy it so much that they shop for dog treats and toys for their doggy guests,” Cornish said.
Cornish recalls her first bite-prevention program with her first therapy dog. A large number of children gathered around the visiting animals, but one little girl sat away from the animals—she had been attacked recently by a dog that bit her face, so the mother was understandably fearful for her daughter.
“My dog looked like the one that attacked her,” Cornish said. “I placed my dog as far from her as possible so she wouldn’t be frightened. Then I noticed her approaching my dog, which was sitting calmly. The mother looked panic-stricken, but allowed the child to approach. Finally, the girl was smiling and petting my dog and then was able to approach all other dogs. I heard later that the experience encouraged the parents to allow the child to get a dog of her own.”
Most local teams work with the disabled, with several routinely visiting the therapy gym at MGH.
“Dogs get patients with weakened arms to throw balls for them to chase,” Cornish said. “Patients struggling to walk are moved to get up and walk with the dog.”
Kirkum recalls a boy with physical problems using the dog to pull himself into a standing position, which brought tears to the eyes of his family.
“Our teams visit some mentally disabled people who may be agitated by an approaching person but calm down with a dog,” Cornish said. “A therapy dog is loving, nonjudgmental, and accepts people with no reaction to their disabilities. Some patients are more welcoming to a dog than to a human.
“Pog and I visited Camp New Day, which is run by local Lutheran churches to give summer camp experiences to children who have parents in jail. The children were fascinated with Pog’s size and strength. They questioned his ability to stand up to a wolf. One child went a step further, asking how Pog would stand up to a hyena. I told her I thought he would be brave and strong, but we would probably beat a hasty retreat.”
Ed Anderson travels with his white poodle Arlo. A Marquette native who worked in Arizona for many years before returning to the U.P., he and Arlo visit the psychiatric and rehabilitation areas at MGH. Only the highest rated dogs work these venues. As a Mason, Anderson’s team helps at reading-in-school sessions.
“The kids sit on the floor, reading to Arlo, who sits in the middle watching them,” he said. “Reading to a dog and in front of other kids improves their reading skills.”
Arlo also visits campers at Bay Cliff Health Camp in Big Bay and goes to screenings of U.P. children seeking admittance into no-cost Shriner Hospitals.
One of Anderson’s top experiences came while he and Arlo helped get a young girl to work on controlling her blood pressure and blood oxygen level.
“We were asked if Arlo could help,” he said. “We sat and talked with her, Arlo and I, and then saw that her blood pressure was dropping and the oxygen level was going up.”
Their presence in psychiatric wards also is notable.
“Many patients never came out of their rooms, but now ninety percent come to interact with Arlo, even those who wouldn’t come out before,” Anderson said. “Another time, we visited a stroke patient who was getting therapy and wouldn’t answer anyone. But she enjoyed sitting with Arlo, and soon started to talk and put words into sentences. Outside the room, the therapist said, ‘Do you realize what just happened in there? This is the first time she started talking.’”
Cornish recalled another stroke patient who hadn’t spoken since the incident.
“She was in therapy gym one day when a small King Charles therapy dog stopped by,” Cornish said. “The dog was brought to the patient so she could interact with it. After a short while she looked at those around her and said her first words: ‘Nice dog.’ The staff was both delighted and stunned. That little dog made a big difference that day.”
Another time, a cancer patient was in pain, and slipping away.
“Two teams came by: a little Yorkie and my huge Pog,” Cornish said. “The patient was delighted to see us. The Yorkie was put on the bed and gently walked to where the patient could easily pet her, then laid down and went to sleep. The patient’s expression let everyone know that this was ‘good medicine.’ Pog, meanwhile, interacted with the family. One knelt down and Pog stepped forward for a ‘wolfie hug and kiss.’ When we left this room, everyone was smiling.”
Cornish remembered when she and Pog were posted at their familiar spot in the MGH skywalk, waiting for reactions.
“Once fifteen people came around the corner, saw Pog, and began petting him,” Cornish said. “One asked to hug Pog. ‘We just lost our mother,’ a member of the group said to me.”
Pet Partners are all volunteers. As their work becomes better known, more facilities allow therapy dogs to go inside.
Cornish said Wattsson & Wattsson is very dog friendly.
“We even have treats for them, but they must be on a leash,” owner Ron Wattsson said. “And people know pretty much in advance how their dogs are going to act in a store.”
Menards Marquette manager Steve Carroll welcomes therapy dogs if they have handle-collars or bandannas, to use the store’s aisles for acclimation purposes.
“This is a great program,” he said.
Temperament is the most important trait for a Pet Partner dog. If it’s not friendly, patient, at ease in all situations, enjoys human contact like petting and handling by strangers, then no amount of training will make it eligible.
Prospective Pet Partners are tested in situations they likely will encounter in their work. Handlers must pass an open-book written test, while dogs are checked for obedience and temperament and other requirements like handling sudden or strange noises, odd surfaces, wheelchairs and walkers, unusual walking gaits and getting along with people. Children enjoy hugging animals and adults enjoy petting them. The animal might be lifted, climbed on, petted awkwardly or made to sit or lie down, so handler beware.
Dogs must be at least a year old, pass a physical, have rabies and other required shots, and meet appearance and grooming standards. Free pet therapy testing includes:

• Accepting friendly strangers.
• Walking comfortably with handler through crowds.
• Remaining confident despite sudden distractions or changes, like other dogs.
• Sit and stay on command, and come when called.

“We test both the dog handler and the dog, because certification is for the team,” Cornish said. “Handlers must control access to the dog, let it know what’s expected of it and not expose it to scary or harmful circumstances. They must prevent rough handling and control the unexpected, like confused patients, exuberant children or loud noises. And it’s the handler’s job to educate the public and encourage interaction with the pet. People often are reluctant to approach a therapy dog—they think it’s a service dog or they may fear dogs.”
Karen Anderson, superintendent of North Star Academy in Marquette, made local history when she brought her cat Dusty to the mall for testing. When asked the breed, she laughed and said, “Humane Society.”
A major test consisted of placing Dusty in a series of strange laps to test its reaction. After Dusty passed, Karen Anderson said she’d be glad to take whatever assignments come their way, especially hospitals and nursing homes.
Kirkum, who works at MGH’s X-ray department, makes twice-monthly visits to Brookridge Heights Assisted Living. She has six dogs—all retired show dogs who already are trained to be responsive and perform tricks. Her therapy dogs are Paige and Summer, who are mother and daughter. Paige got the Rotarian award for community service, and both dogs were named pet volunteers of the year.
Every Tuesday, she brings her pooches to Peter White Public Library’s Read-to-Me program, where the dogs sit and listen to the children read to them.
“This activity gives the boys confidence and better reading skills,” she said. The dog doesn’t care if the boy skips a sentence or mispronounces a word, and it never criticizes.”
It’s evident that pets have a good effect on people with physical and emotional problems, and studies are bearing this out. Some of the findings so far:

• Petting an animal can reduce blood pressure for the healthy and hypertensive.
• Animals help heart and lung function by lowering pressures and anxiety, more than from a human volunteer.
• Self-esteem is raised through unconditional acceptance by the animal.
• Unconditional affection is given to those who lack it (in prisons or shelters).


For the elderly and disabled:

• Ten years ago most nursing homes forbade animals; now almost half welcome them.
• Average medication costs dropped in some studies.
• Social interaction increased in long-stay psychiatric and nursing homes.
• Loneliness, anxiety and depression were reduced; therapy pets break up the routine, stimulate the mind, and give the elderly the feeling of being a nurturer.
• Focus and calmness improved in Alzheimer’s, dementia and depressed patients.
• Memory is stimulated, especially in Alzheimer’s patients.
• Speech function improved in stroke patients.
• Mobility-impaired were able to do simple acts like petting and brushing.

For children:

• Promoted feeling of well-being in children.
• Reading skills improved in children who read to dogs.
• Fear or anxiety reduced during physical exams or dental visits.
• Less anxiety in children waiting to testify in court.

There also is a wonderful effect on pet handlers.
“I volunteer at MGH on my days off, and use vacation time for pet therapy events,” Cornish said. “Vacation days should be spent doing what you truly enjoy. It’s a privilege and honor to do this. Examples of therapeutic pet and human interaction are evident every time you take the animal out. It is awe-inspiring when petting my dog reduces stress and puts a smile on those with daily stress or catastrophic events.”
Animals other than dogs and cats are used in therapies, like rabbits, pigs and horses. In the case of Karen Anderson’s cat passing muster, Cornish said her group is “very excited about cat people having therapeutic access to a wonderful animal.”
The group has been approached by a horse owner who hopes horse therapy soon will be available. Cornish said they hope to have it going during 2009.
“Public education starts with word of mouth,” Cornish said. “People see our dogs, and this sparks public inquiry. I have been invited to speak to many groups and met with people to explain the program and how to get involved. Institutions in Marquette County know and approve of us. Dogs are welcome in many places.”
Superiorland Pet Partners, which wants to extend this program across the U.P., offering free testing several times a year, with the next one tentatively scheduled for February. If the handler and animal pass testing, there is a charge to certify the team.
Those interested in pet therapy should visit or call (800)562-9753 and ask for the pet therapy program. Cornish can be contacted at or 485-5815.

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