Animal Therapy Dog Rico visits patients at Victoria General Hospital’s Neurologoical Rehab ward.

A patient’s best friend

VIHA rep extolls the therapeutic benefits of man's best friend.

Dogs have a reputation as man’s best friend. Owning a dog has many benefits — they provide a reason to go out for a walk, a chance to experience their excitement about life as they chase a well-thrown ball or stick and, of course, unconditional love.  Organizations, from health care facilities to schools and daycare centres, have recognized the positive impact a well-trained dog can have. Many of these allow pet visits and dog therapy under the auspices of Pacific Animal Therapy Society (PATS), Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), Animal Assisted Therapy (ATT) or other approved dog therapy societies.

PATS is an animal therapy program operating primarily on Vancouver Island. Sadey Guy founded the organization in 1988 after retiring from nursing. “I was inspired to start the program when I saw the difference my own dogs made when they visited folks in facilities who were not returning to their own homes,” explains Guy Twenty-five years later, PATS has grown to 300-plus volunteers who visit 90 facilities.

At the Vancouver Island Health Authority, PATS volunteers take their own pets to visit retirement facilities, assisted living residences, group homes and other facilities. These pets must first pass a behaviour test (administered by a veterinarian), ensure that all their vaccinations are up to date and go through an orientation with their handler.

PATS volunteers have many stories to tell about the impact their pet visits have on residents.  Wearing their blue PATS kerchiefs around their necks, these dogs bring love and laughter into the lives of many.

In addition to visiting residential care facilities, there are animal therapy programs. These programs support approved therapy dogs visiting patients in acute-care facilities like Victoria General Hospital. Dogs enrolled in this program must not only pass the PATS guidelines, but they must also follow strict Infection Prevention and Control guidelines around cleanliness, grooming, hospital and patient access.

Dog therapy is a welcome addition to the therapies used at Victoria General Hospital’s Neurological Rehabilitation floor. Patients here have had a brain injury or stroke and are learning how to navigate day-to-day life again. A therapy dog is assigned to an approved patient and comes on the ward for 20-minute visits as arranged.

Patients are generally on this ward for six to eight weeks. “This can be a difficult time for many patients as they adjust to their disability,” says social worker Heidi Meseyton. “I find that an animal therapy dog can be beneficial, especially for patients who are vulnerable to isolation or who are having difficulty coping emotionally.”

Rico is a two-year-old Bernese mountain dog who spends time specifically on this Neurological Rehab ward with his owner, Magrit Whittome, a volunteer of nine years. Rico is the third generation of Whittome’s Bernese dogs that has performed therapy duties. His predecessors, Queno and Bianca, visited VGH for seven years and the stories of their relationships with patients are the stuff of legends.

Whittome’s dogs have brought comfort to a dying child, encouraged a non-communicative patient to speak and helped families cope with sadness.

“Magrit’s therapy dogs have had such an impact and are fondly remembered to this day by staff, volunteers, returning patients and visitors,” says Petra Slaughter, coordinator of volunteer resources.  “I can’t thank Magrit and her four-legged angels enough for all the joy, peace and hope they bring to the hospital.”

Up until recently, Rico was spending time with a patient who had difficulty communicating and was isolated and withdrawn, as it was very frustrating for him to try to speak.  He lit up when Rico came to visit— the interactions appeared to lift his spirits and give him some much-needed affection. This patient has now returned home.

Therapy dogs also work with patients on “functional enhancement.” This therapy is for patients who are returning home and need to build their strength, flexibility and mobility. Rachel Oates, a physiotherapist working with patients at Aberdeen Hospital, has used therapy dogs to help patients improve physical function. “Patients can build their range of motion by grooming a dog who stands at the patient’s shoulder height so they must lift their arms up,” notes Oates. “Patients also improve their standing balance by throwing a ball for a dog and waiting for them to return it—they enjoy watching the dog so much, they tend to stand longer, building their ability.” Oates adds that the therapy dogs bring a sense of fun and positive energy so that patients stay with their exercises longer when working with the animals, and that remembering commands helps builds cognitive function.

Therapy dogs—welcome members of Vancouver Island Health Authority’s volunteer force.

For more information Vancouver Island Health Authority’s Volunteer program: www.viha.ca/volunteer_resources/

For more information on the PATS program: www.patspets.ca/wordpress/.

Sarah Plank,

VIHA Communications

 

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