Dog duty

Canines prescribed by new (and returning) health programs

Ellie and her handler, Julie Vugrenes, visit a patient at Enloe Rehabilitation Center.

Ellie and her handler, Julie Vugrenes, visit a patient at Enloe Rehabilitation Center.


Be a volunteer
Enloe Medical Center and Butte Humane Society are hosting a pet therapy volunteer information session on Saturday, April 9, from 11 a.m. to noon at the BHS Education Center (2156 Pillsbury Road, Ste. 160 B). Call 332-4575 for more information.
Baby on the way?
Learn how to prepare your pet with a new class, Infant Car Seat and Pet Safety, at Enloe’s Mother and Baby Center (251 Cohasset Road) on April 14 at 5 p.m. Call 332-3970 for more information.

For being a dog, Ellie, a 2-year-old Labrador/golden retriever mix, is capable of pretty remarkable things. On command, she can open and close a refrigerator, pull a laundry basket across a linoleum floor, and push buttons with her paws to open automated doors for people with disabilities.

As the new facility dog at Enloe Rehabilitation Center, she and her handler, Julie Vugrenes, a recreational therapist, regularly work with about 40 patients. Ellie knows dozens of commands related to physical rehabilitation and everyday tasks, but her top jobs are providing a sense of calm and inspiring people to progress in their therapy. One wheelchair-bound patient was overjoyed by her company during the CN&R’s recent visit to the rehab center.

“She’s just an amazing being,” she said. “She’s my best buddy.”

Enloe has been without a facility dog since 2012, when Molly, a golden retriever/yellow Lab mix, was put down at age 13. She’s been missed, Vugrenes says. “The patients, especially if they came back, have been like, ‘Where’s the dog?’ The nursing staff, too. When they found out I had applied for a new dog, everyone was excited.”

About four months after Molly died, Vugrenes started the two-year process of applying for her replacement through Canine Companions for Independence, a national organization founded in Santa Rosa. She recently spent five weeks there getting familiar with facility dogs’ training, and then finding the right dog to fit her personality—which turned out to be Ellie. “She’s really energetic and I have a really busy lifestyle,” Vugrenes said of the pairing. Canine Companions officially owns Ellie, but she lives with Vugrenes.

Whereas Molly worked as a service dog for one person before becoming the facility dog at Enloe Rehabilitation, Ellie was raised to work with dozens of patients a day. There are personality differences as well. Vugrenes recalls Molly for her strong discipline; Ellie, on the other hand, is extremely friendly and often crawls onto patients’ beds. “She’s far more snuggly,” Vugrenes said.

Most dogs don’t need such specific training to provide companionship, a fact recognized by Enloe’s new collaboration with Butte Humane Society. Through their pet therapy programs, people with steady, predictable and controllable dogs can get training and, ultimately, visit in-patient facilities.

Amy Alvarez, Enloe’s volunteer coordinator, oversees Pets Assisting With Service (PAWS). BHS has maintained a separate but similar program, Alvarez said, so it made sense to team up. “We got together and started talking about our goals and who we wanted to reach,” she said. “We really think that we can have people volunteer simultaneously in both our programs, if they’d like, so we worked out a schedule of how our trainings could work together.”

After attending an information session on April 9, volunteers will bring their dogs in “to test their demeanor and see how the handler works with them,” Alvarez said.

Volunteers who complete Enloe’s training can visit patients on the main campus, rehabilitation facility, cancer center and behavioral health unit. Those who complete the training through BHS, on the other hand, will go to nursing and assisted-living facilities. Participants in either program should be comfortable with visiting patients and capable of handling their dogs; dogs must be friendly and calm.

There are more standards for sanitation. Pet Partners, the program’s national certifying organization, has special training on infection control in medical settings, and dogs aren’t allowed in ICU and trauma units. For the safety of patients, the animal must be comfortable around medical machinery and potentially startling objects like gurneys and wheelchairs.

For patients who don’t have many visitors, especially, spending time with a dog can be greatly uplifting, Alvarez said. “If someone is having a rough day, stroking and talking to the animal can be diversionary and just calm them down,” she said. That goes for medical staff as well. “Their lives are really busy at work. It’s stressful, but they can take a pause and destress with the dogs.”

For all the ways pets can benefit human health, sometimes they need help, too—like, when a newborn baby shows up at home. Another new Enloe and BHS collaboration, Baby-Ready Pets, is a class aiming to help new parents prepare their dog or cat for arrival. The first session is set for April 14.

Kristen Staggs served on the BHS board of directors for seven years, but, with an 8-month-old son at home, she now works there solely as a volunteer. As an instructor for Baby-Ready Pets, she’ll cover basic pet health and safety, getting an animal ready for the baby’s arrival, and helping the pet transition once the baby is home.

“Every animal reacts so differently—sometimes in ways you don’t expect them to,” Staggs said. “Sometimes, they’re experiencing a baby for the first time. It can be very hard on the animal. Once the baby moves in, the baby is No. 1.”

Without preparation, a pet may act out toward the parents, the baby, furniture or other household objects. However, Staggs knows a few tricks to help ease the transition period: Before the baby arrives, play the sound of a baby crying (seriously, there’s an app for that: Baby Sounds for Pets); get the pet comfortable in the nursery area and show it it’s a “calm room”; and wear a scent similar to what you’ll bathe your baby in, so he or she smells like you.

Finally, on the day of arrival, Staggs recommends not bringing the baby into the home right away. “Go in and greet your animal, love your animal, let them smell you—so they can smell the baby—and then bring the baby in,” she said.