HEAL! Spotlight On Therapy Animals


From long hours, to intensive physical activity, to tests of patience that even humans wouldn’t be able to endure,the life of a therapy animal can be challenging.

On a spring afternoon, Burton and Shellie Goldstein stride into the lobby of Sibley Memorial Hospital. The Goldsteins are slim, athletic. They wear identical polar fleeces and tote tie-dyed backpacks. They trail identical leashes behind them, attached to which are two identical dogs. Light casts through the open doorway and onto the foursome. As they walk through the lobby, rustling and padding, members of the hospital staff look up and around. The scent of hand sanitizer drifts through the room. The National Capital Therapy Dogs have arrived.

“This is Bear,” Burton says.

“And this is Emma,” Shellie says, kneeling to scratch Emma between the ears. Bear and Emma are shih-tzus, born in the same litter and trained together as working animals. Their manes are long and soft. The hair around their faces has been trimmed to accentuate their large, dark eyes. These two dogs wear many hats, but today, they are here to comfort.

The Genes in Life team shakes hands with the Goldsteins. We give Bear and Emma a few cursory pats on the head, and we receive a few nuzzles in return. Burton, Shellie, Bear and Emma have driven here from the National Institutes of Health, where they visited patients and families to provide comfort.

“They know that whenever their vests go on,” Shellie says. “They’re going to work.”

We follow the Goldsteins, Bear and Emma to the hospital’s rehabilitation center. Patients are resting and playing card games as they wait to work with their physical therapists. We’re greeted by a nurse, who informs us that two patients in the wing would like to spend time with a pup.

“We’ve got a real dog person here,” the nurse says.

“That’s right,” a man says, grinning. His name is Reggie, and he is recovering from a chest injury. He sits beneath a fish tank. He wheels his wheelchair forward.

Burton brings Bear into his arms and sidles up next to Reggie. “Would you like to touch Bear’s hair?” Burton asks, guiding the man’s hand to rest on Bear’s head.

Shellie picks up Emma and sits by Frank, a stroke survivor.

“I used to have a dog,” Frank says, running his hand along Emma’s mane. She rests her muzzle on his leg, and Frank’s breathing slows. Frank and Shellie fall into quiet conversation. All the while, the man and the dog are connecting.

Bear and Emma visit the rehabilitation wing of Sibley Memorial Hospital each week, often coming in after making rounds at the National Institutes of Health. Their activities here may seem understated; most interactions with  patients involve talk and touch. Yet the Goldsteins tell us that these animals provide no small amount of comfort for the patients with whom they cuddle.

The path to becoming a therapy animal is extensive and lined with hurdles. Shellie explains to Frank and the Genes in Life team that Bear and Emma are CGC, or “Canine Good Citizen,” certified. Before receiving six months of American Kennel Club training, they were screened for temperament and obedience. And through training, they were encouraged to be quiet and peaceable even when exposed to chaotic environments. After a final evaluation, held at a bustling shopping mall, National Capital Therapy Dogs deemed Bear and Emma well suited for work. The two shih-tzus joined a group of 120 animal-human teams in DC, Maryland and Virginia. The teams participate in regular programs at Aspenwood Senior Living, Blair Ewing Center, the Rockville Public Library, and more than twenty other facilities.

“The goal,” Burton says, “is to heighten the dogs’ innate abilities so that they may best be used to heal humans.” National Capital Therapy Dogs is one organization among many to facilitate canine-assisted therapy. Research and service groups proclaim the physical and emotional benefits of interaction with a gentle, friendly pet, which include lowered blood pressure, lessening of overall pain, lowered anxiety, and release of endorphins such as oxytocin, the cuddling hormone.

The benefits of animal therapy reach far beyond the inpatient setting. When Bear and Emma turned two years old, Burton and Shellie introduced them to the HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response program. The two shih-tzus were again screened, trained, and given a final exam. They were exposed to the sounds of sirens, airplanes and trains so that, even in acute situations, they would remain calm and at attention.

The HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response program engages animal therapy for the benefit of groups facing difficulty in the aftermath of a crisis or traumatic event. After first responders survey a situation, HOPE teams are sent out. The teams at HOPE visited the World Trade Center on September 12, 2001. They toured the Northeast coast in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Bear and Emma’s first assignment with HOPE was to visit the Navy Yard in DC following the shooting in 2013. In the summers, the canines visit Purple Heart and Wounded Warrior camps.

From long hours, to intensive physical activity, to tests of patience that even humans wouldn’t be able to endure, the life of a therapy animal can be challenging. “Bear and Emma work up to seven hours at a time,” Shellie says, “and provide services to patients depending on their particular needs.”

At home, Burton and Shellie try to provide an environment in which Bear and Emma can relax, restore, and prepare for their next therapy tour or crisis intervention visit. After a full day’s work, Bear and Emma enjoy a treat. Emma prefers bits of kibble, while Bear will eat most anything.

Bear and Emma are certified to provide their services in the DC, Maryland and Virginia area. If you or someone you know is receiving care at a local hospital, hospice center, or retirement home, make sure to keep an eye out for Bear, Emma, and their National Capital Therapy Dog friends. •

Sarah Roth is Program Coordinator for Genes in Life. She is interested in the relationship between storytelling and health support systems. She received her MFA from the University of Notre Dame and her BA from Washington University in St. Louis. Sarah can be found @selizabethroth.
Roxanne Rogers is a sophomore at Pepperdine University majoring in Psychology and Pre-Dental. She has spent the last year studying in Washington, DC, and is a spring intern at Genetic Alliance.

Source Exceptional Parent Magazine

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