Paws for Patients

Therapy dogs encourage the sick and disabled.

Melinda Marchiano was 13 years old when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was treated at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she met some wonderful friends. These friends, with their four legs and wagging tails, offered Melinda caring and consolation. Carmel, Rowan, Echo, Dottie, Scruffy, Paloma, Ralf, Ryder, Sugar and Sammy would hop up on her bed and shower her with unconditional love that always made her smile, no matter how difficult a time she was having. For a teenage girl suffering from cancer, friends like these make all the difference in the world. They are therapy dogs, members of dog-owner teams that are trained and used for animal-assisted activities and therapies.

“Every time a volunteer stopped at my door, I completely forgot about the chemo dripping into me or the months of chemotherapy, radiation and recovery that were ahead of me,” she says. “Everything was perfect from the moment I saw the wagging tails and compassionate eyes. It was so soothing to stroke their heads and feel their breathing against me. I loved looking in their eyes and seeing how much they truly cared about me, even though we’d just met. They always made me feel so stress-free and un-anxious and renewed my spirit to push on and fight my battle.”

Recently, medical science was able to draw a correlation between the canine-human bond and its profound effect on the emotional health of people. Studies have shown that holding or petting an animal lowers a person’s blood pressure, releases strain and tension, and can draw out a person from loneliness and depression.

Therapy dogs come in all sizes and types. Training courses and certification programs for both dogs and owners are available, but not required in all situations or by all facilities. What counts most is that the dog has a love of people and a desire to help others. Predictability in handling is also important. They assist in therapy at nursing homes, assisted-living centers, children’s hospitals, oncology centers and at hospice care, provide respite for caregivers, and encourage those suffering from chronic and debilitating illnesses.

There is a difference between “animal-assisted activities” and “animal-assisted therapy.”

“In the former, the dog and handler simply meet and greet patients and residents of long-term care facilities to provide companionship and comfort,” says Cindy Ludwig, a registered nurse and certified therapy dog owner from Dubuque, Iowa. “In the latter, the animal actually works with a qualified health-care professional as part of the treatment team. For example, an occupational therapist might use a therapy dog to help a patient regain arm movement and grip strength by brushing the dog.”

Canine Compassion

Therapy dog owners and volunteers know the benefits for everyone involved — even if it’s not easy at first. Consider the 21-year-old cystic fibrosis patient that Maureen Horgan, a therapy dog teammate and administrator at Providence Hospice of Seattle, went to visit with Dresden, her Labrador retriever. When the duo arrived, the patient’s 3-year-old sister panicked. She had been attacked by a dog earlier in life and had a fear of dogs. The patient took charge, desensitizing her sister to the dog’s presence and helping her to trust Dresden. Before the visit was over, they had all become good friends.

Horgan says that often family members gain as much as or more than the patient from these canine visits. “Dogs are nonjudgmental, curious and openhearted. They can make people feel confident, and they listen in a way that people can’t,” she says. “Dog therapy is nonintrusive; it’s the perfect ministry of presence.”

If a patient or loved one is closed to communicating for themselves, they frequently can be coaxed to open up by using the dog as the subject of conversation. “Instead of asking how they are doing, I’ll start by asking about the family animal or the therapy dog. It puts them outside of themselves and gets them talking,” Horgan says. “And sometimes, we just sit quietly together because that’s all that’s needed. Never underestimate the power of nonverbal experiences.”

A Dog’s Tale

Sometimes the dog that seems like the least likely candidate for therapy becomes the most useful instrument of healing. Frankie is a dachshund that suffered a spinal injury and was eventually custom-fitted for a canine wheelchair. Her owner, Barbara Techel of Elkhart Lake, Wis., expected to train her yellow Labrador puppy for therapy, but the dog wasn’t a good fit for therapy assistance. But Techel discovered that Frankie had a special gift for others. Frankie’s disability takes the patients’ minds off their worries for a brief time and encourages them to overcome their own disabilities.

“There was a 96-year-old woman who had lost her ability to communicate, and her speech was unintelligible,” Techel recalls. “One day as Frankie was licking her hand, clear as a bell, she said, ‘Kisses.’ She has also said Frankie’s name twice, clear as a bell. It’s quite rewarding when that happens.”

Therapy dog handlers are grateful that their dogs enrich the lives of others, because the dogs do the same in their own lives.

Amy Gorton is a volunteer with Love on 4 Paws, an animal-assisted therapy program in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and takes her golden retriever Betty White to visit several hospitals, nursing homes and schools throughout Los Angeles. “I know at home, if I’m feeling blue, my dog can make me feel better — and that translates to hospitals and nursing homes. Many times, patients are missing their own dogs at home, and this gives them an opportunity to interact with the animal in the hospital. Dog visits really make an impression on patients.”

Jeanine Connolly, a medical family therapist in Dallas, experienced her own healing when she met her Newfoundland, Dove. The two formed an immediate and deep bond, and that inspired Connolly to leave her media relations job to go back to school. She earned a master’s degree and started a new profession in counseling. As a diabetic for 40 years, Connolly now helps people win their own battles with the disease, and Dove plays a major role — her nurturing character and perceptivity make her a natural therapy dog.

Their teamwork is something that Connolly thanks St. Francis, the patron of animals, for every night, because she credits her Catholic faith with the fruitfulness of her work.

“My work and experiences with dog therapy have strengthened my faith,” she says, “and without faith, I wouldn’t have had such rich experiences. They are mutually dependent.”

Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.


The Delta Society:

Canine Companions for Independence:

Therapy Dogs International:

Love on 4 Paws:

Therapy Dogs, Inc.: