Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs Charlotte, left, and Gideon

At least three times a month, Melissa Salazar leashes her yellow Labrador Drew and Staffordshire-terrier mix Scarlett and they meet with members of Hoffmann Hospice’s weekly Children and Teen Grief Support group.

Both rescues, Salazar says Scarlett was so severely abused that she has just one eye. But her heart sees with 20/20 vision.

“She loves people,” Salazar said. “When I adopted Drew, his anxiety was bad, but his trainer thought he had potential as a therapy dog.”

Salazar’s dogs may have been discarded, but it turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.

“The happiness they bring these people makes you feel warm inside,” she said.

Every week, 85-year-old June Garbell makes the rounds at Kern Medical with either her standard poodle Charlotte or Gideon, her goldendoodle. They may visit a waiting room full of anxious, grieving people, a patient or two, or the psychiatric unit.

“Patients who don’t speak are talking up a storm,” Garbell said. “They love the tactile experience and it is so gratifying.”

She and her dog are a welcomed distraction, hospital administrators say.

“It makes a huge impact. It is as if patients are given a break from their diagnosis for a little bit of time,” said Miranda Whitworth, Kern Medical’s communications manager. “Being able to pet a dog and do something that transports them back to normal, everyday life can be treatment in and of it-self.”

Some of Garbell’s visits are even met with tears of joy. She and Salazar are volunteers with the Pet Partners program, a nationwide organization based in Washington, dedicated to improving human health and well-being through the human-animal connection. Before Pet Partners was established here, local pet owners would visit nursing homes with the help of the SPCA.

The benefits of animal therapy are undeniable, including a reduction in pain and anxiety in people with a host of health problems, as well as their friends and relatives who keep them company.

Today, there are other therapy animal programs in town, but Pet Partners’ standards for certification are considered the most stringent. The animal must be obedience trained, evaluated and certified for a hospital setting, be able to tolerate noise, not be afraid or a barker, and have the right temperament. Both the dog and its handler are tested every two years and are required to undergo a physical examination and be current on vaccinations.

While Garbell engages with patients, others let their dogs do the communicating.

“I hold the leash and my dogs do all the work,” Sue Beal said.

She and her golden retriever Hunter and basset hound Penny interact with everyone, from patients in recovery to those in the final stages of life and see the rawest of human conditions.

“To see someone’s eyes light up, knowing that they are cared for, words can’t describe it,” Garbell said.

Although medical care may now be highly specialized and technological, a human’s health and wellness can still be positively affected by contact with another living being. 

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.

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