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Pet therapy can help with healing, recovery

Pet therapy can help with healing, recoveryDarrell Rice loves dogs and has always owned one. But since living at Martha & Mary’s long-term care facility in Poulsbo for the past five years, he’s missed having a pet around.

That’s why Tuesdays are special. He gets regular visits from Poncho, a golden retriever owned by volunteer Kari MacKenzie.

“Poncho rubs me the right way all the time,” Rice said. “He’s so kind and an easy dog to be around and enjoys being with people.”

His wife, Verna, who died two years ago, was also quite fond of Poncho, even requesting special visits when she was feeling very ill.

Poncho, a friendly golden retriever, is a favorite visitor for Darrell Rice and other residents when trainer Kari MacKenzie brings him to the Martha & Mary long-term care center in Poulsbo. (Photo courtesy Martha & Mary)“I miss my wife a lot,” Rice said. “Poncho fills a little bit of that gap. All the dogs do.”

While Poncho is by far the favorite — not just for Rice but for many other Martha & Mary residents — Rice enjoys visits from many other dogs on a regular basis. The facility has about 60 volunteers as part of its pet therapy program. All the pets are dogs, save for Muffin, a miniature horse.

Some of the volunteers are staff members who bring their pets — and often, kids — to visit with residents during their off-hours. Others are community members like MacKenzie, whose dogs are certified for pet therapy.

But anyone with a well-behaved dog can participate in the program after a screening and orientation process, according to Tracie Walthall, Martha & Mary director of resident life services. The pets (and their owners) simply drop in during visiting hours.

“Pets are a big part of the healing process. Animals can bring joy and purpose to the residents’ life,” Walthall said.

A young Great Dane named Levi and his handler, Pam Selz, make their first official visit with a Harrison Medical Center patient in September. Selz, who works with several dogs, has been a volunteer with the hospital's pet therapy program since its inception about six years ago.Karen Martinez is one of those residents. At Martha & Mary for 14 years, she’s had to place her own dog into her brother’s care. She looks forward to all the dogs’ visits, but especially to Poncho’s. She even has the golden retriever’s photo, which was part of Christmas cards MacKenzie gave residents a couple years ago. Martinez keeps dog cookies on hand and she’ll sometimes walk Poncho around the halls.

“It cheers you up since you can’t have your own around,” Martinez said. “It lets everyone feel like they’re at home; it’s fantastic.”

Poncho, who’s three and a half years old, and MacKenzie are certified through Pet Partners. They’ve been coming to Martha & Mary for more than two years.

“I know Poncho really enjoys it,” MacKenzie said. “He makes a beeline for the rooms that have treats and they’ll make him do something for it. It breaks (the residents’) day up a bit.”

But the visits are a treat not only for Poncho. MacKenzie often chats with the residents too and has created many new relationships.

“It’s a huge morale booster for them and it puts a new perspective on my day. I’ve met people there who’ve become like my second set of grandparents,” she said. “It does so much good for the residents who can’t leave the facility. It opens all these doors for them to talk and to connect with the dog.”

Helping the sick heal

Various studies have shown numerous benefits of pet therapy, both psychological and physiological. The benefits range from decreased risk of cardiovascular disease to decrease in stress and pain levels.

At Harrison Medical Center, pet therapy is part of the complementary therapies program. “It’s about treating the whole person — body, mind and spirit. It’s a great evidence-based practice,” said Tiffany Leveille, complementary therapies manager. “If you love dogs, it can be highly therapeutic. The feedback from our patients and our staff for the past six years reinforces how important this program is.”

Harrison has five volunteer dog handlers and eight “teams” (some handlers own more than one dog). The teams see more than 400 patients in a typical year.

“We’re not about quantity but quality, and there’s no time limit to a visit because we want to meet people where they are,” Leveille said.

They have to be certified as pet therapy teams, and the hospital prefers to work with organizations that require regular recertification.

“The recertification makes sure we’re maintaining their skills. It’s important to continue getting the dogs into new situations,” said Pam Selz, who was the first pet therapy volunteer at Harrison and is a certified trainer with Seattle-based Project K-9.

Selz, who works as a pathologist, has three certified dogs (she lost a fourth one earlier this year). The youngest, a 9-month-old Great Dane named Levi, has been in training and made his first official patient visit at the hospital in September. Magnum, another Great Dane she started with in December 2007, is now semi-retired.

“He gets fan mail from patients,” Leveille said of Magnum.

The teams come in on a schedule and get assigned to units by staff before starting their rounds. They visit both patients and staff and sometimes Selz will specifically visit staff offices.

“Working in a health care setting is stressful. Even seeing the dog from a distance can help a person’s day,” she said.

Being in a hospital environment can be challenging both for the dog and the handler. That’s why the teams are evaluated to make sure they’re a good fit for the hospital and would feel comfortable being there.

“Dogs do smell sickness and death. They pick up a lot of smells and it can be confusing for them,” Selz said.

The volunteers go through in-depth clinical training after they become part of the program, and they participate in ongoing training — including hospitalwide staff events such as safety day.

The certification process, done through agencies such as Pet Partners and Project K-9, includes both classroom instruction and testing. But first, the dogs have to go through obedience training. Part of the certification process is about evaluating the dog’s personality and ability to handle new situations and people.

“Once you get past the obedience, it’s socializing, socializing, socializing,” Selz said. “Everywhere I go with Levi, he’s exposed to something so it’s always work.”

Harrison also does annual competency testing for its complementary therapy volunteers. “For me, it’s not much different than being a staff member. They’re a huge part of our team,” Leveille said.

Selz, who also volunteers with her dogs at the library and at Martha & Mary, said it was never her plan to do pet therapy. But she noticed that Magnum was very social and attracted attention everywhere, and “it just sort of happened.”

“For me, it filled a niche for the caregiver side of me,” said Selz, who previously worked as a medical examiner for King County.

She said she’s built many deep connections through this work — often by talking with families waiting in the hospital lobby. It can be emotionally challenging, she acknowledges, which is why the teams are thoroughly prescreened.

“Even if we’re volunteers, we’re caregivers and we soak up the grief and sadness others are feeling,” she said. “If you do this work, those emotions will affect you. And the dogs can soak that up too. We teach the teams to take care of themselves and their dogs.”

The best part, she said, is seeing people smile.

“That’s huge, to know that for that split second, whatever else is going on, they’ve had a rush of happy. To make people happy is a gift. A gift for me.”

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