Therapy Dogs are Just What the Doctor Ordered
||Patient Brian Guerrero with Dyan Zeller Harris and Coco, a Yorkie,
from The Good Dog Foundation.
Brian Guerrero gets emotional remembering the day he first met a 3-year-old Yorkie named Coco, the therapy dog that made him feel at home and reminisce about childhood while awaiting rehab therapy at Metropolitan Hospital Center after a painful spinal condition had left him disabled and in a wheelchair
“A lady came in with a dog and asked if I wanted to see him. Of course! I loved the dog! I felt so happy,” he said.
Guerrero is one of many patients at Metropolitan, in East Harlem, who is being helped by therapy dogs that have specialized training and good temperament to visit children and adults in hospitals, nursing homes and other settings.
“The whole time I was hugging the dog, I was remembering when I was a child,” he said. “I grew up with dogs. This dog gave me the strength to continue with my therapy. When he licked my face, I felt – somebody is with me. I’m not alone.”
Since 2011, highly trained and certified teams of dogs and their owner-handlers from The Good Dog Foundation have been delighting, comforting and motivating patients at Metropolitan Hospital twice a week at bedsides, in group therapy meetings and during grueling physical therapy.
Five teams of dogs and owner-handlers now visit an ever-expanding group of units, including the geriatrics unit, the occupational therapy/physical therapy outpatient clinic, behavioral health and pediatrics. The dogs include a Poodle/Shih Tzu/Bichon mix; a Maltese Poodle mix; two Boxer/Lab mixes, and a mixed breed dog. Wherever the dogs visit, magic occurs, says Linda Takourian, director of the hospital’s Volunteer Services, who coordinates the therapy dog program.
“Oh, the smiles on patients’ faces! The dogs bring them life, a little love. For seniors, whose family members may not visit regularly, it’s a comfort. They feel someone cares,” says Takourian.
The significant physical and emotional benefits patients derive from being with therapy dogs are well-documented, says Kathleen O’Reilly of The Good Dog Foundation, a New York City non-profit and the largest certifying animal-assisted therapy organization on the East Coast. The foundation also partners with other HHC hospitals including Bellevue Hospital Center, Harlem Hospital Center and Woodhull Medical Center. The program has been so successful that the hospital will soon start working with a second dog therapy program. Jacobi Medical Center also has a dog therapy program underway.
“On a physical level, by offering unconditional love, therapy dogs lower a patient’s stress level and heart rate,” O’Reilly says. “And in a rehab unit, when patients who’ve had a stroke or traumatic brain injury hold the dog, they can be exercising muscles that are hard to access if not for the motivation of the dog.”
She adds, “When patients are reminded of life outside the hospital, it helps them get through their treatment.”
By motivating positive behavior, a dog can support a patient’s recovery. “Patients will get up and do their rehab exercise, or get to chemo, if they know the dog will be there,” O’Reilly notes.
When a dog and its owner-handler visit Metropolitan’s wards, they go room to room, asking each patient if they’d like to meet a dog. More often than not, they’re invited in. “Patients get so excited,” says Takourian. “They want to give the dog a treat! It brings back good memories.”
When the team reaches Metropolitan’s gym, patients with disabilities bend and shift position to eagerly pet the dog, movement that is beneficial to their recovery.
To enter any HHC facility, the therapy pooches must have the proper immunization, annual physicals, and be certified as flea- and tick-free. The dogs are not allowed in operating rooms or food areas. Some patient rooms are off limits if the patient has a condition such as an infection or respiratory illness that would not allow them to be around a dog. Small dogs must sit on a towel on patient beds. And handlers must wash their hands before and after visiting each room.
Powerfully touched by meeting the dogs, Guerrero has a new goal – one that’s making him push hard in therapy. “I live alone and right now, I can’t take care of a dog. But if I get better, I’ll be able to. That will make me happy.”