By Carl Berkowitz, TCCC Volunteer
A true story: the patient had not moved for several days and was psychologically closing off to the world. A special therapy team was brought in. Using no invasive medical procedures, the team soon had the patient smiling and reaching out to them. This was all accomplished by the end of the team’s first visit. Observers watching this event were in tears.
Another true story: an elderly patient in poor health was able to go for a short walk following a visit by a team using the same technique. This patient not only fell in love with one of the team members, but actively watched for the team between their visits with other patients. Observers noted that stress levels among medical staff diminished and smiles increased by just being in the presence of this team.
In each of these stories (and there are many more like them), one member of the team had four legs, was furry and had a cold nose. The trained pet therapy (‘PT’) dogs who visited these patients came there through the work of Karrie Napier, a nurse (RN) and pet therapy evaluator.
The Human/Pet Bond
Karrie says “…a bond forms almost right away between people who are suffering and a trained therapy dog.” And medical research supports her claim. An overview report from the University of Pittsburgh summarizes 20 peer reviewed articles documenting symptomatic benefits for reducing pain, psychological distress, and fatigue in a variety of patient populations, including cancer patients.¹
Karrie’s work to bring a pet therapy program to Trios Health (formerly Kennewick General Hospital) came only after she completed a rigorous one year course offered by the nationally recognized organization ‘Pet Partners.’ Here, she became familiar with the many special requirements and demands made on both handlers and therapy dogs.
While no breed is automatically excluded from participating in the program, Karrie notes that not all pets have the disposition to be therapy dogs. A basic criterion is that the dogs must enjoy interacting with total strangers in a very gentle manner. “Our daughter Alyssa’s Chihuahua mix (Lilly) and our family’s Australian labradoodle (Bendigo) are both amazing dogs and we love them. But neither one passes muster as a therapy dog.” And while there have been no local Pit Bull therapy dogs, this is only because no local owners with this breed have become registered.
Following in some mighty big foot (paw?) steps…
Karrie’s interest in pet therapy was piqued by Braemar, a 150 pound Leonberger acquired by her husband, Ian, in 2004. The couple initially had no intention of training Braemar to become a therapy dog, wanting instead to simply have a good family pet. They took Braemar everywhere to make sure he was socialized and comfortable around people. During these outings they would often be approached by strangers asking if they could pet this gentle giant (he weighed more than Karrie!). Karrie and Ian frequently saw faces light up with smiles as Braemar would lumber over, tail wagging, to say hello. These observations and her professional medical background led to Karrie’s recognition of the need for a pet therapy program at Trios.
So in 2006, Karrie and colleague Linda Dunn started working with the Trios medical and administrative staff to design a ‘PT’ program. They had to address concerns about patient safety, pet hygiene and visitation guidance (e.g., patients having compromised immune systems generally cannot have ‘PT’ visits). Assuring that only healthy animals came into the facilities was achieved with the support of VCA Meadow Hills Animal Hospital, with exams done throughout the year to assure optimal health in the four legged helpers.
Braemar tested for and qualified to become the first ever participant in Trios’ “Paws for Patients” program. He provided love and affection to patients for over six years before cancer brought his ‘career’ to an end.
Braemar’s legacy carries on…
Today, Linda is chair for the Paws for Patients pet therapy program at Trios and Karrie is a registered Pet Partner team evaluator. There are now more than 15 ‘PT’ teams available to visit local hospitals, libraries and hospices. While the Tri-Cities Cancer Center ‘PT’ program was on hold during their recent expansion, the four-legged, furry, cold-nosed workers will be back this spring.
Karrie encourages pet owners interested in participating in the program to learn more at the website, PetPartners.org. Here, they will find general information on ‘PT’ and guidelines to help determine if their pet is suitable for this type of work. Persons in need of a ‘PT’ team or in supporting this program can contact Lisa Gallegos, Trios Volunteer Director at (509) 221-5117 or Joan Stewart, TCCC Clinical Services Project Coordinator at (509) 737-3450.
¹Marcus, D.A. Curr Pain Headache Rep (2012) 16: 289. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11916-012-0264-0