Sit, Stay, Heal! Medical Dogs
BY Lisa Collier Cool • POSTED July 20 2010 AT 11:15 am
One of the MDs at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio, has some unusual habits: He wears a blue nylon vest over his black fur coat, jumps on patients’ beds, and tickles them with his nose. That’s because Ansley, MD is a medical dog. The 5-year-old black Lab/golden retriever mix has been working full-time at the hospital since 2006, providing animal-assisted therapy (AAT) to kids with spine or neurological disorders.
Unlike therapy dogs, which provide comfort and companionship, AAT dogs typically work with a trained medical professional to help patients achieve specific treatment goals, says Jennifer Lundine, a speech therapist in the hospital’s rehabilitation unit. “If kids are learning to talk again after a brain injury, they can practice by giving Ansley commands, or someone with a weak arm can exercise by throwing a ball or brushing Ansley.”
From the start, the canine had an uncanny ability to connect with patients, including a brain-injured boy who didn’t respond to human therapists. “Just having Ansley in the room was enough to get this patient to sit up for the first time and participate in a 30-minute speech therapy session,” recalls Lundine. “The next day, the boy participated in a full day of therapy, knowing that afterwards, he’d get to see Ansley again.”
To earn his “MD,” Ansley has learned more than 40 commands, including “visit” (putting his head in a patient’s lap), “push” (opening doors for disabled patients), “switch” (turning a light switch on or off), and “tug” (opening drawers). He was trained by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). Although such advanced training can cost up to $40,000 per dog, and takes at least six months, CCI gives the dogs to recipients free of charge.
Medical dogs also calm patients who are agitated, reducing the need for tranquilizers, says Lundine. “I’ve also seen kids who were in a lot of pain from injuries walk without trouble during physical therapy because they were having so much fun with Ansley that they forgot about their pain.” Ansley, who lives with Lundine, seems to sense how much good he’s doing. “When we arrive at the hospital in the morning, he prances from excitement because he loves his job.”
Studies show that owning a dog can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. How has your pet changed your life—or health—for the better?
Connect the Dots
Want to learn more about therapy dogs and animal-assisted therapy? If you’d like to volunteer at a hospital, nursing home, or other facility with your pet, training typically consists of a 12-hour training course, offered by such groups as the Delta Society, ASPCA and American Humane, followed by a test of your dog’s obedience skills. For a state-by-state list of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) programs in the United States, visit this site. The Delta Society also has links to books, articles and research on AAT.