A dog a day

For some patients, canines offer therapy that no human can duplicate

Molly, a golden retriever/yellow lab mix, served as Enloe Medical Center’s therapy dog for seven years.

Molly, a golden retriever/yellow lab mix, served as Enloe Medical Center’s therapy dog for seven years.


About this story:
This story was originally written for New America Media.

Specialists at Enloe Medical Center have been without an animal-assisted therapy program for about a year. That’s because Molly, the golden retriever/yellow lab mix who helped patients as they progressed through social, physical, emotional and cognitive therapies, was put down at age 13, after seven years of working in the hospital.

Molly made a mark on all of the patients she worked with, said Lynda Sezon, Enloe’s rehabilitation therapy supervisor, but especially so for some. One paraplegic patient came to mind during a recent phone interview: “Molly would stay in his room all day,” Sezon said. “When Molly was there, he started participating in therapies; he would come out of the room. We took him out into the community with Molly and taught him how to use the buses with Molly. She was the instigator.”

When another patient made a breakthrough in regaining her ability to speak, her first word was “Molly.”

Molly certainly hasn’t been forgotten, nor has the success of the animal-assisted therapy program. She was used during a wide range of therapeutic exercises and helped patients overcome the physical or emotional hurdles associated with serious injury or illness. For instance, patients were encouraged to use their weaker limb when throwing a ball for Molly or brushing her coat. Those undergoing speech therapy would use commands to help develop communication skills. And simply holding Molly’s leash made otherwise tedious mobility and endurance exercises more enjoyable.

“What’s really nice about it is that the patients don’t realize they’re doing therapeutic activities,” Sezon said. “They’re just playing with the dog.”

Molly’s success with patients is the reason the hospital has already completed the application process for a new therapy dog through Canine Companions for Independence. As socializing and training the animal to respond to more than 40 commands will take roughly 18 months, Sezon said, the hospital is unsure of when the new dog will be ready for action. When that time arrives, however, the dog will be on-hand at Enloe Rehabilitation Center for about 20 hours every week.

“We’re very excited,” Sezon said. “I can’t tell you how much it will help.”

Though Enloe’s program applied to patients of all ages, pet therapy can be particularly beneficial for older individuals, as evidenced by a recent UCLA study. As researchers went about gathering data on how care and services should be delivered to California’s poor and elderly, they stumbled upon an unexpected finding about the key role pets play in keeping them healthy and happy.

That was not something researchers went looking for, asserted Kathryn Kietzman, a research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and project director of the data gathering research called The HOME (Helping Older-adults Maintain independencE) Project. They discovered it while investigating how the state could develop and sustain a network of care that would allow low-income elderly people to remain safely in their own homes.

Actually, the therapeutic effects of pets have been well-documented, and there’s a growing body of scientific research on this. Studies published in the early 1980s found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t; that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure; that interacting with pets could increase people’s level of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin.

The HOME study, funded by the SCAN Foundation, followed 54 low-income, elderly Californians with long-term care needs over a period of four years. The study participants, who are enrolled in both Medi-Cal (California’s version of Medicaid) and Medicare, lived in five of the eight counties where the state is launching its so-called dual-demonstration program, Cal MediConnect, which hopes to deliver care in a coordinated, seamless fashion to low-income elders.

“For some of them, the relationship they have with their pets is very profound,” observed Kietzman. “We discovered pets were a big source of social support.”

HOME researchers found a 92-year-old virtually bedridden woman who depended on her dog for her emotional needs. Aside from the six hours her two caregivers spent with her each day, she was home alone the rest of the time.

The companionship of her dog, Kietzman said, was as critical to her as the phone calls she received from her three sons living out of state.

Another elderly man with severe neurological impairments was so fond of his service dog that he “talked to everyone who provided him some service” to help him raise enough money so his canine companion could have a much-needed surgery.

“He couldn’t consider life without his dog,” Kietzman said, noting that for people like him, their pets give them a reason to get out of bed.

Kietzman said that her team’s finding about pets “is a good example of why it is important to take a holistic approach to understanding and responding to the needs and preferences of this very physically, socially and financially vulnerable population.”

So when implementing Cal MediConnect, she said, health care and social service professionals need to assess the individual needs and preferences of older adults, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Fortunately, she said, the Cal MediConnect program already has in it “person-centered” language.

But it should go one step further and take into account “the role and meaning of a pet in these individuals’ lives,” said Kietzman, noting that the HOME project findings clearly show that in addition to in-home care, transportation and easy access to health care, the elderly need a “warm-blooded companion” to keep them from feeling socially isolated.

The CN&R’s assistant news editor, Howard Hardee, contributed to this story.