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No barks or bites about it, these dogs are top-notch ‘healers’

NCH Animal-Assisted Therapy Program seeks volunteer dog/owner teams

Monday, June 25, 2018

Sometimes being able to pet and cuddle a dog makes everything feel better. It's also nice to be visited by a furry friend while hospitalized. That's why for over a decade, dogs and their volunteer handlers have been brightening patients' spirits at Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH), and more dogs and handlers are needed to join the Animal-Assisted Therapy Program (AAT).

AAT dogs can soothe patients, improve mood, lower blood pressure and more, according to the latest healthcare research.

"Pet therapy has been proven to reduce depression, anxiety, pain and fatigue in patients with a variety of health conditions as well as reinforce rehabilitation goals," says Leslie J. LaBelle, R.N., MSN, MBA, a licensed dog trainer and evaluator with The Joint Commission, a healthcare accrediting organization.

Patient Frank Sesko gets a visit from Levi.

In 2017, NCH volunteer handlers and their dogs made more than 11,400 patient visits at NCH. Currently there are 60 dog teams with plans to add 15 more.

"After being part of this wonderful program for 10 years, I would have to say it is rewarding not only to the patients and staff but to me," says AAT Program Manager Kathy King, who visits patients with her brindle hound mix, Guinness, who usually sports a fancy hat. King's other dog – Guinness’ brother Caesar – also visit patients. “You can see the difference you make on the faces of all who visit with the dogs."

Patient Frank Sesko of Inverness enjoyed visits from the AAT dogs while he spent nearly a month in the NCH Acute Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit recovering from surgery.

"It's spirit-lifting is what it is," Sesko said, while petting Levi, a 9-pound Cavapoo owned by volunteer Heidi Shor. "They're always so cute."

King says dogs have to qualify to be in the program.

Dogs need to:

  • Have basic obedience training
  • Respond to voice commands
  • Walk on a loose leash
  • Refrain from jumping or barking
  • Be at least 18 months old

Applications are being accepted through July 9, 2018, and qualifiers must go through a two-hour temperament and obedience evaluation by professional dog trainers on Saturday, July 28 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at a cost of $30. Three-day training for qualifiers is $125 and will be held October 6, 7 and 13 at the hospital.

Learn more about the program. For more information, contact Kathy King at 847-618-7968 or k2king@nch.org.

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