Who Let the Dogs In? Visits by Canine Therapists Lift Patients' Spirits at Stanford Hospital

NOVEMBER 2, 2009

As she moves confidently through the hallways of Stanford Hospital, Rita’s official badge swings back and forth with each step. There’s no MD after her name, but her skills as a healer could justify it. When Rita pays a visit to a patient, the atmosphere instantly brightens.

“Oh, here you go, pretty girl,” cooed Stella, a patient in the intermediate cardiac care unit. “What a good dog!”

For more than a decade, dogs like Rita and her animal colleagues in the Pet-Assisted Wellness at Stanford program (yes, that’s PAWS), have padded their way into the hearts of patients and staff alike during their weekly therapeutic visits. During those moments when the warmth of a black Labrador or corgi or golden retriever radiates in a patient room, it’s much easier to forget the tangle of plastic tubing, the beeping of monitors and the reality of illness.

Rita walks with her handler.
On her way to work as a canine therapist in the
Pet-Assisted Wellness at Stanford program (PAWS), Rita is completely at ease.

“It’s win, win, win all the way around,” said Rita’s owner and handler, Robert Higa, “when you see the connection dogs can make. It’s so easy and effortless. You can really see the change you can bring about with a dog.”

The program, said Barbara Ralston, the hospital’s vice president for guest services and international medicine, makes an important contribution toward “getting patients well and out of the hospital. It helps normalize their experience. People who have pets really miss their pets. We can’t let their pets in, but we have surrogates for them.”

The introduction of dogs, cats and sometimes rabbits into a hospital environment is not simple, said program coordinator Jesse Rodriguez. The PAWS animals are as antiseptically clean as can be. Rita is bathed before every visit, then Higa goes over her toenails and paws again right before she enters the hospital. Program facilitator Nan Wetmore greets the animals before they enter with a final inspection of eyes, ears, teeth and nails.

Just as crucial is temperament, and that includes obedience: Manners in a hospital must be perfect. Rita, a border collie-Australian shepherd-English setter mix, has an intelligent expression that says, “I’m the nicest dog you’ll ever meet.” She is highly trained and, like the other dogs, has passed the strenuous certification tests created by the Delta Society. The society runs training and testing programs for service animals and their handlers.

“It’s about demeanor,” Rodriguez said, “about their willingness and acceptance of multiple touching and an environment of unpredictability. They must be very warm and welcoming to anybody touching them.”

Rita does a trick for a patient.
Rita's owner and handler, Robert Higa, prepares to give her the okay to snap up the treat balanced on her nose. Stanford Hospital patient Arthur Middleton looks on in anticipation.
The PAWS visits are directed first at units where patients have longer stays, where missing home can sometimes lead to depression. The bonus is that hospital staff enjoy the event, too. In fact, the requests for visits outweigh the program’s ability to fulfill them.

At no time are the dogs off leash. Nor do they go to units where patients are on immunosuppressant medications. The visits with each patient last between five and 10 minutes. Black Labradors and golden Labradors are regular members of the team, but the current PAWS group also includes a Doberman pinscher, a Scottish terrier, a collie and a smooth fox terrier, a leonberger and a soft coated wheaten terrier.

Rodriguez acknowledged that Rita is one of the more well-known dogs in the program. Not only has she been on the team for six years, but her repertoire of tricks is breath-taking. She can’t show off her ability to catch a Frisbee or to retrieve baseballs from the San Francisco Bay―she’s an ace at both―but she does do a gone-in-an-instant trick with a treat balanced on her nose.

She also happens to be a veteran as a patient. Higa found her at a shelter, left there by owners who couldn’t afford to cover the cost of a badly broken front leg, ultimately mended with multiple pins. Now she knows 50 commands and, said Higa, “every new person is a good thing.” She does more than go through the motions, he said.

Wetmore works with nurse managers on each of the visitation units to find those patients who are medically able to tolerate this kind of event. The program also provides a weekly one-hour visit to the hospital’s psychiatric units. Nurse manager Chuck Pitkofsky has supervised many of those visits. “Some of the most depressed patients will come out of their rooms,” he said. If a dog is small, then the animal might take a place on a patient’s lap. “Some people will come out and not say a word and just pet the dogs,” Pitkofsky said. “We had an elderly patient who was catatonic with depression and when we put the Scottie on her lap, her hand came up and she said, ‘I used to have a dog.’

“I see the connection,” Pitkofsky said. “Dogs are just unconditional love.”


About Stanford Hospital & Clinics
Stanford Hospital & Clinics is known worldwide for advanced treatment of complex disorders in areas such as cardiovascular care, cancer treatment, neurosciences, surgery, and organ transplants. Consistently ranked among the top institutions in the U.S. News & World Report annual list of "America's Best Hospitals," Stanford Hospital & Clinics is internationally recognized for translating medical breakthroughs into the care of patients. It is part of the Stanford University Medical Center, along with the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. For more information, visit http://stanfordmedicine.org.

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