Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 26
Dignity Health hospitals launch a new therapy dog program
BY AMY ASMAN
Chloe is Marian Regional Medical Center’s newest celebrity; with her platinum blond hair, soulful eyes, and heart-melting smile, there’s no wonder why.
The 5-year-old Golden Doodle is one of the first canines in the hospital’s new therapy dog program, called Healing Paws. On Sept. 10, Chloe and her owner/trainer Barbara James will start visiting patients who are in need of some unconditional puppy love. Unlike service dogs, which only interact with their owners, therapy dogs are meant to interact with the public.
James and Chloe will be joined by three other human/dog duos: Bill Kennedy and his golden retriever, Otis; Virginia Pavlakovich and her German shepherd, Sheila; and Lynn Constantino and her Lhasa Apso, Cujo. According to hospital officials, six additional therapy dog program teams are currently going through the certification process in order to volunteer at Marian.
Dignity Health’s other Central Coast hospitals—French Hospital Medical Center and Arroyo Grande Community Hospital—are developing therapy dog programs as well.
“We’ve always had the unusual experience in which people want to bring their dogs into the hospital or have their dogs come visit,” said Judy Hoffman, Marian’s therapy dog program committee chair and director of respiratory services.
However, health and safety protocols don’t allow pets in the hospital, except under very special circumstances.
“This is a more formal way for that to happen,” Hoffman said.
All of the dogs and handlers who volunteer must be certified therapy teams. While developing its program, Dignity Health reached out to four organizations for help: Therapy Dogs International, Therapy Dogs Inc., Love on a Leash, and Pet Partners.
Hoffman and Marian’s patient experience manager, Deanna Buelow, said they picked those four organizations because they have rigorous standards and liability insurance for handlers.
The hospital has rigorous standards as well: “All of the dogs have to pass through infection control guidelines, and they’re bathed before they come in the hospital,” Hoffman said. “And if they have any sniffles, just like a person, they wouldn’t come to the hospital.”
The trainers also have to undergo a tuberculosis test, a medical screening, and a background check.
Starting Sept. 10, the trainers and their dogs will come to the hospital on pre-scheduled days; they’ll walk the halls and ask the nurses on shift if any of their patients would like to receive a four-legged visitor.
The only patients who can’t interact with the dogs are those who are in isolation. Patients with animal allergies will still get to visit with Chloe because she’s hypoallergenic and doesn’t shed.
“And we’ll respect people’s privacy,” Chloe’s owner James said. “If a door is closed, we’ll knock. We’re not going to say, ‘Here we are! You have to see us!’”
Hoffman and Buelow, along with other hospital officials, expect the dogs to have a very beneficial effect on patients.
“[Having a dog around] is a great relief of stress because dogs are always so happy. People always have smiles on their faces,” Hoffman said. “They just made you feel so good; it’s unconditional love.”
Added Buelow, “There have also been studies that dogs—animals—help decrease blood pressure and help with pain management.”
Once the program is in full swing, the hospital is going to make little trading cards of the dogs with all their stats.
“They’re going to be little celebrities. We’re going to have to bring them in through the back door,” Hoffman said. “Everyone is excited to have them. It’s very exciting.”
Training: gentle, but firm
Barbara James always knew she wanted to be a volunteer—she just didn’t know where or for whom.
“I wanted to volunteer in the community because Santa Maria is such a loving, giving community and I wanted to be part of that,” James said, adding that she needed something she could balance with her full-time job.
She found out about Marian’s therapy dog program through her daughter, Ashley, who was working at the hospital.
“[Ashley] said, ‘Mom, you’re not going to believe what they’re doing!’” James said. “When she told me about the program, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, Chloe would be perfect. She loves people; everyone is her friend.’”
The therapy dog program, James said, was “a perfect fit.”
So, James contacted the hospital to find out what she needed to do to become a volunteer. Then she took Chloe to a private dog trainer—“so I knew how to act with my dog,” James said. Lastly, she started looking for a certified therapy dog trainer, which she found in Pismo Beach resident Eva Keehn.
Owner of Positive Energy Dog Training, Keehn is certified by Animal Behavior College, Therapy Dogs International, and the American Kennel Club. She and her dog Coach, a cockapoo, teach groups of dog lovers and their pets how to pass the Therapy Dogs International evaluation.
“He’s named Coach because he’s coaching the other dogs, he’s showing them what to do,” Keehn said.
She said that in order to be certified the handlers and their dogs have to pass a 14-step test. The test requires that the dog:
“It’s a liability for the dogs to pick up anything in the hospital,” Keehn said.
For this step, the trainers put food on the floor and the dogs have to walk past it without picking it up or touching it. The dogs are also offered food, which they have to ignore.
“I was worried about that one. When I saw the line of treats on the floor, I thought, ‘Oh, no, she loves her food,’” James said of Chloe.
She also recalled watching Keehn pass by Chloe with a walker, and then pick it up and bang it repeatedly on the floor.
“It was rigorous,” James said of the training. “Actually, it was very fun. [Chloe] just loved it.”
Keehn explained it this way: “We’re teaching them how to be safe, polite, and gentle.”
She also said it’s important that the owner and her dog work as a team.
“I want to see if the owner can control the dog. If the dog is making a mistake, I want to make sure the owner is correcting it,” she said. “I want to make sure the dog is listening to its owner and that the commands are clear.”
James said it became apparent early on that Chloe wasn’t the only one who was expected to perform.
“I was getting trained, too,” she said. “It sounds silly, but it’s true.”
At Positive Energy Dog Training, the owners start off using treats as incentives for the dogs to perform. Eventually, they substitute the treats for toys or pats and other forms of positive reinforcement.
“There are no treats on the test,” Keehn said, “so you want to make sure they’ll listen to you without them.”
She said she believes in using “positive training with gentle methods.”
She recounted the story of a young teacher who brought in her dog to be trained to work in her special education classroom.
“The dog had been severely abused, but he passed the test,” Keehn said. “When [the dog] passed, the teacher had tears in her eyes, and she said she uses him as an example to her special education students: ‘I tell them you can be anything if you put your mind to it and work at it.’”
Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at email@example.com.