“It’s wonderful to see the transformation in the patients’ faces when the dogs arrive,” says Pam Autrey, PhD, RN, and chief nursing officer at Medical West hospital, an affiliate of UAB. The dramatic change occurs in one of the most difficult populations to manage at a hospital, geriatric psych patients.
Twice a month, Kosmo, a terrier mix, and Demi, a golden retriever, make official calls to the 19-bed unit. Trained as therapy dogs, the two canines, under the control of their owners, stroll the halls for about a half hour, visiting any interested patient. The only areas off-limits include patients in isolation and any rooms where food is prepared or being served.
“The results of the interactions are instant,” says Nathan Clark, director of business development. “The patients’ demeanor changes immediately.” Their overall comfort level improves, along with their willingness to participate in activities and leave their rooms. “It’s amazing what this does,” he says.
Clark began working to bring therapy dogs to Medical West last summer after the Humane Society of Birmingham brought pets to the facility’s annual hospital week. A few nurses at the inpatient rehab unit brought patients out to the yard to interact with the dogs. “It created a spark,” Clark says. “We saw a really positive improvement in those patients. They did better in their therapy. It seemed to give them a morale boost to spend time with an animal.”
So Medical West contacted Hand in Paw (HIP), a local nonprofit that uses the proven techniques of the international Pet Partners program to train therapy animals. HIP carefully selects and trains owners and their pets to serve in medical and educational situations. Their 175 volunteers currently help children with learning disabilities, reluctant young readers, and patients of all ages who face emotional, physical, and mental conditions, such as autism, muscular dystrophy, terminal illness and dementia.
“The HIP teams are very well trained,” Autrey says. She was just as impressed by the handlers as the dogs. “You have to be a special person to do this in this environment, but they just blended right in and started mingling like they did it every day.”
For the teams to qualify for their therapy certification, the dogs must pass basic obedience classes along with the Hand in Paw therapy training. “Those dogs don’t jump up, they don’t lick — which is really good from an infection control perspective — and the day before they come, they have to have their teeth cleaned, a bath, their ears cleaned, and their nails clipped,” Autrey says.
That kind of detailed awareness and understanding of infection control helped allay concerns of starting the animal-assisted therapy at the hospital. “The idea of animals in a sterile environment was the biggest challenge we faced with the quality department,” Clark says.
The other challenge was creating policies and procedures. “My advice to other facilities wanting to do this, is to depend on a company like HIP that does this professionally,” Clark says. “They’ve crossed all those hurdles for you.” The potentially complicated process was also eased by Clark’s adapting UAB hospital’s pet therapy policies to suit Medical West’s facility. “It was easy to turn to them because they’d already done this,” he says.
The entire approval process took about four months. “A lot of eyes had to see it,” he says. “But it was not a big deal other than the timing of getting it through the committees, and that was because they only met monthly.”
With the success of the teams’ visits at the geriatric psych unit since the beginning of the year, Medical West is expanding the animal-assisted program. Starting this month, the therapy dogs will make rounds in the inpatient rehabilitation unit.
“The dogs can be used to motivate patients to do certain exercises, especially in occupational therapy,” Autrey says, in addition to the emotional benefits. Petting the dogs and tying ribbons on them can improve fine dexterity. Patients also practice using walkers and canes while following the dogs.
“It’s certainly been worth it and it hasn’t cost us a dime,” Clark says. “From a business development perspective, if we can offer a service that makes patients happy and not spend any money on it, it’s a win-win.
“It’s easy to say no to change,” Clark says. “But our original concerns — behavior and cleanliness – were never an issue.” Even the staff gets uplifted by the dogs’ visits. “It gets people excited when they see a dog in the lobby. It changes everybody’s perspective. Everybody lets their guard down when dogs are around.”