Comfort creatures: Therapy dogs play an active role with patients at NHCH
WAIMEA — As most pet owners will tell you, dogs and cats make them happy. And now there is a growing body of scientific research that shows animals can make a person healthier as well, which explains the growing use of pet therapy animals.
Dogs are being used with increasing regularity in hospitals and nursing homes, child therapist offices, mental institutions, jails and even court rooms. Pet therapy animals help adults and children relax, stay calm and not feel scared.
On a typical day at the North Hawaii Community Hospital (NHCH), there is noticeable excitement in the air when Mimi, Emily Rose, Maile or Kaela — the hospital’s current pet therapy dogs — make their way down a hall. Just their presence makes the hospital a better place for patients and staff.
According to Jennifer Rabalais, RN, who oversees the hospital’s Pet Therapy Program, the canines and their handlers began visiting the hospital six years ago and have always received a positive response. She has seen people who were withdrawn and nonverbal break into smiles and start talking when pet therapy dogs enter the room.
“With patients who are disoriented or agitated, pet therapy dogs provide a calming effect, especially when they have dogs of their own,” Rabalais said. “Even very sick patients respond. They instantly sense the dog’s unconditional love.”
The hospital staff, too, has come to know and anticipate visits from their favorite animals.
“It’s a toss-up on who benefits most, the staff or the patients,” Rabalais said.
Maile, an 8-year-old rescue yellow lab mix with a perpetually wagging tail, enthusiastically greets everyone she meets. Neither Maile nor her handler, Jerry Denz of North Kohala, had been involved in pet therapy before.
“Maile needed a job,” Denz said.
After successfully completing obedience and agility training, they were able to volunteer at NHCH.
“On Tuesdays, when we load up the car, she knows we’re going to the hospital and she’s ready,” he said.
The two have been visiting the hospital once a week for the past four years.
“It’s been rewarding on a lot of levels. We both enjoy it,” Denz said. “It allows us to give something back, to bring some comfort to people who are missing their dogs.”
Another team bringing smiles to patients is Emily Rose, a 9-year-old cattle dog mix, and her sister, Mimi, a rescue 8-year-old Chihuahua fox terrier. As the unofficial NHCH special events ambassador, Mimi is often seen wearing a tiny dress purchased by her owner and handler, Lori Havens of Waimea.
“Mimi likes to dress up,” she said.
At hospital charity events, Mimi gives people “a slobber for a dollar” and has made up to $20.
Havens has participated in the NHCH Pet Therapy Program for six years.
“It’s something good I can do for the community with my dogs,” she said.
Special moments happen during just about every visit to the hospital.
“I know it helps people physically. I definitely have seen evidence that a patient’s blood pressure went down after visiting with the dogs,” Havens said.
The hospital’s fourth canine volunteer, Kaela, is a Shar Pei that will turn 10 in June. Her owner-handler, Diann Keliikoa of Waikoloa, was once a Shar Pei breeder on Oahu and says of the dozen or so dogs she’s owned, Kaela is the best and came that way. The dog was only 1 when she joined them but was already extremely well-behaved and could sit, stay and shake hands.
There are well-known parameters to dog therapy in hospitals which NHCH abides by. Dogs must be obedient, mellow and comfortable around strangers. Their owners must fill out an application form verifying the animal’s good physical health and bring a sign-off letter from their veterinarian. The animal must then come to the hospital where Rabalais conducts a physical assessment.
“Most dogs do very well,” she said.
The human part of the team also must apply. Owner-handlers are required to pass an extensive vetting process that includes reference and credit checks. A dog can pass in one day but it can take up to six weeks for an owner-handler to be approved.
Pet therapy dogs are normally visiting the hospital four days of the week and can go just about anywhere with the exception of same-day surgery, the operating room and the birthing center. With attending medical staff permission, pet therapy dogs can even visit the emergency room and intensive care unit (ICU).
Whether it’s a proven or placebo effect, animals have an innate ability to help their human friends heal. Research has shown that heart attack patients who own pets live longer than those who don’t, and petting one’s own dog can reduce blood pressure.
Pet therapy dogs not only help patients but their families too.
Keliikoa recalls a day when she and Kaela visited the NHCH ICU. The nurse told them that it was a bad day, and curtains around patients were drawn. But as they went to leave, Kaela suddenly pulled on her leash. The nurse said, “She senses something, let her go.” Behind the curtain lay a man unconscious, surrounded by monitoring equipment and wires. Kaela walked around the bed and put her head on his hand.
“She sensed the man was dying, and later he did,” Keliikoa said.
When the nurse told the man’s daughter about Kaela’s visit, the daughter started to cry and said that when her father was alive, he loved dogs.
Keliikoa and Kaela also brought comfort to a man whose wife had become ill while they were vacationing on Hawaii Island. The woman had suffered a seizure and was brought to the NHCH ICU. Kaela sat next to the woman’s husband and put her paw on his knee to comfort him. She then put her paw on the woman’s hand. The man said to Keliikoa, “Thank you so much.”
“Now when people thank me, I usually tell them that I am just blessed to be there as a ‘service person’ for Kaela,” Keliikoa said. “She does all the work.”