Health & Fitness

December 24, 2013

Therapy dogs’ job: ‘Bring love and smiles’

At 150 pounds, Ike doesn't realize he's really not a lap dog.

At 150 pounds, Ike doesn't realize he's really not a lap dog.

The 4 1/2-year-old Rottweiler climbed on the lap of 17-year-old Jordan Newton during Jordan's recent stay at Wesley Medical Center.

The gesture of affection earned Ike the honor of being Jordan's favorite among the 11 therapy dogs – ranging from a humongous Great Pyrenees to a petite Pomeranian named Pumpkin – that visited the hospital's pediatrics unit that evening.

Ike became a certified therapy dog in 2010 after he turned a year old, when dogs are eligible to undergo testing by Therapy Dogs International. He's been sitting on the laps of any patient willing to let him ever since.

“I tell people that his job is to bring love and smiles,” said Ike's handler, Kelly Truby, an elementary-school teacher at Central Christian Academy. He's been doing that all his life, she said, having accompanied her to school as a pup where he loved being held and handled by her fifth-graders.

“As he got bigger and bigger, they taught him to back up and sit,” Truby said.

Six-year-old Andrew Montiel declared Pumpkin his favorite dog, “because she's soft.” Greyhounds Penske and Tumbleweed were the favorites of his mom, Alicia Garcia.

“I think this was great to have the dogs visit,” said Garcia, as the Garden City resident and her son waited for a medical transfer to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. “Kids get so frustrated in the hospital, and this lifts their spirits.”

Ike, Pumpkin, Tumbleweed and Penske and packs of other therapy dogs in Wichita visit pediatrics patients at Wesley, patients at Via Christi Cancer Institute, families at a local pediatric oncologist's office, seniors in care homes, patients on the mend in rehabilitation hospitals, and even homebound cancer patients.

Trained and tested to ensure that they can remain focused in a health care setting, the dogs go from room to room, allowing patients to pet them, while the handlers make small talk.

The use of therapy dogs is growing in Wichita and across the country as more studies and research tout the health benefits of man's best friend. According to published studies, interactions with a therapy dog can reduce the level of stress hormones, bring down blood pressure, reduce pain and anxiety and improve a person's mood.

The places where therapy dogs are allowed “have really opened up,” said Teresa Claiborne, who makes about seven to nine therapy visits a week with greyhounds Penske and Tumbleweed. A therapy dog handler for 16 years, Claiborne has visited thousands of patients.

One of the changes has been allowing dogs into hospital settings, Claiborne said. For patient safety and sanitation, medical centers and the certifying agencies have strict rules about making sure the dogs are cleaned and groomed before every visit, are in good health and are well-behaved.

Visits from a four-legged friend “can be a diversion to people who are stressed out to the max,” said Diana Thomi, executive director of Victory in the Valley, a Wichita cancer support organization. About 30 therapy dogs and their handlers comprise the support group's Canine Friends program, which started a decade ago.

That diversion is often welcomed by not only patients, but staff and families. A few minutes with a therapy dog can help rejuvenate and decrease burnout among medical staff attending sick patients and can help distract and comfort family members, say health care professionals.

“Staff absolutely love them,” said Brandi Gutzmer, clinical care coordinator for Via Christi Cancer Institute, which started allowing therapy dog visits in November at its location at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis. “It's been such a great pick-me-up during the day.”

Dogs have been visiting pediatrics patients at Wesley since 2011, said Megan Bulcock, a child life specialist who helps coordinate the visits. They've helped calm a crying, uncontrollable child in the emergency room, as well as provide a welcome distraction during a hospital stay.

“Such a big part of my job is normalizing the hospital environment for kids,” said Bulcock, who has created playing cards with pictures and information about each canine visitor. “Having animals in the hospital makes it less threatening.”

Cancer patient Joel Schepis has met a number of the Canine Friends therapy dogs as he's undergone outpatient and inpatient treatment at Via Christi.

“It's good to see the same faces,” said Schepis, who owns a boxer. “When you're used to seeing animals at your house, it's nice to see them here. It's like having the comforts of home.”

Schepis got an added bonus on the afternoon he received a visit from an 8-pound Maltese named Abigail, who was dressed in a red suit to bring a little Christmas cheer to Via Christi Cancer Institute patients.

“You were my middle-school English teacher,” Schepis reminded handler Barbara Davis, who was also decked out in red.

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