The human-animal bond is strong. The love we receive from our pets is unconditional and the comfort incomparable.
Dogs might be man's best friend indeed. The heartbeat inside that furry chest might actually keep your heart beating, according to studies which have found that the presence of a pet might just boost the survival rate of heart patients.
Research has shown that owning a pet can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, boost mood, enhance social interaction and add years to your life. With that in mind, SAMC has launched the region's first dog therapy program featuring certified and specially trained dogs, and their handlers, who visit patients at the bedside.
Lisa Gunn, a registered nurse at SAMC, is the first pet handler to join the Pawsitive Therapy program, begun by SAMC's Volunteer Services department. Gunn works the night shift and volunteers during the day with her Labrador Retriever, Lily.
They are one of about a dozen handlers and their dogs who are participating in the program.
"The dogs are calming and generally soothing to our patients," Gunn said. "Our visits have been very positive."
The Pawsitive Therapy program helps patients express their feelings and offers comfort during a stressful experience. The dogs and their handlers receive special training customized for the hospital setting to ensure patients receive the maximum benefit from the visit.
Pawsitive Therapy began in pediatrics and has expanded to the cancer floor, neurology and behavioral health. Visits are made based on handlers' availability, but usually several dogs visit weekly.
On the day of a pet visit, nurses ask patients if they'd like a visit with a therapy dog. Just before a visit, volunteers confirm the patient is up to it. Then Lily and Gunn make their way from room to room.
A sheet is placed on the bed for patient safety and comfort. The dog is gently positioned on the bed and the petting begins. The visit usually puts a smile on patients' faces as they recall their own dogs, cats and other friends. Hand sanitizer is used before and after a pet visit.
On the pediatric unit, Lily finds a soft spot on top of the bed next to 5-year-old Jaycie Palmer of Hartford, who was being treated for a broken arm. Jaycie's mother, Ciji, said the visit helped brighten her daughter's stay in the hospital.
"She has a black cocker spaniel at home named Charlie," Ciji said. "This visit has meant a lot to her."
Animals have been used as therapy in hospitals as early as the 1700s in Europe because of their calming influence. The relaxing effect of touch is also beneficial. And, pets in behavioral health facilities are thought to give patients a useful purpose while teaching both self-control and caregiving.
It is also believed that pets contribute to longevity by providing a daily purpose, especially for seniors living alone. Pet owners often feel needed and responsible, stimulating survival instincts. That effect can also be felt at the hospital bedside.
The SAMC Foundation contributed funds for pet therapy/training, handlers' uniforms, general supplies, sending pets/trainers to community events, a brochure and community education materials. In the upcoming year, Foundation funds will be used to train more dogs through customized obedience classes.
Is your dog a patient's best friend?
To find out more about certification classes and training, contact Volunteer Services Director Jamie Weeks at 334-793-8122.