By MELISSA HUTSELL
Business Journal Writer
MANTECA — Man’s best friend may also be one of his best medicines.
Animal therapy is becoming increasingly recognized by health experts. Research shows that interaction with animals provides significant health benefits, especially to those suffering from illness. The Mayo Clinic reports that animal-assisted therapy can help to reduce pain, anxiety and depression in patients with a range of illnesses, including chronic heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and those undergoing cancer treatment.
For these reasons, regional hospitals welcome canines of all breeds and sizes, and their human companions, to help heal and comfort patients.
At Doctor’s Hospital of Manteca, Paws 4 Friends – a nonprofit organization that consists of 12 canines and their handlers – who are registered with the national Alliance of Therapy Dogs – make weekly visits. In addition to once-per-week appearances at Doctor’s Hospital, members volunteer at local libraries, care facilities, school campuses, shelters and numerous community events.
The time spent at DHM ranges from 30 minutes to two hours per visit, said Laura Francis, Co-founder/President of Paws 4 Friends. Teams visit waiting rooms, residents and patients along the way and invite hugs from children, or rubs from passing medical staff.
The animals have had profoundly positive effects, Francis added, “Not only for patients, … but also staff members who are having a bad day. When they stop for a minute and interact … they come out in a better state of mind.”
In fact, the sheer act of petting an animal is proven to lower blood pressure, alleviate stress and release endorphins, which is important for both physical and mental health.
Perhaps their best attributes are their ability to effortlessly cross all social, economic and cultural barriers, such as language, Francis explained.
Carmen Silva, Chief Operating Officer of DHM, said the decision to welcome therapy dogs at the hospital was inspired by her true belief in the curative effects of animals.
She is a first-hand witness to the difference the canines make not only in morale, but in the healing process.
“There are a number of incidences where dogs assist in healthcare,” Silva said. The presence of canines automatically evokes happiness and relaxation, she explained. Their calming nature is particularly important in high-stress environments, such as hospitals.
There have been no complaints so far, Silva said, only compliments … and lots of them.
Doctor’s Hospital was one of the first in the region to officially welcome a therapy dog program, Silva said. Other facilities with similar programs include Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Modesto and St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton.
Though each medical center has their own guidelines, protocol requires dogs to be trained, up-to-date on all shots and flea-free.
Socialization and obedience are key traits for therapy dogs, said DiDi McElroy, animal behavior specialist, owner of California Canine and co-founder of the therapy dog program at St. Joseph’s Medical Center.
The St. Joseph’s team includes nine canines and their humans who visit five times per week in groups of three to five.
Canines must be trained, often before 16 months of age, to handle new sounds, smells, textures, etc. This is particularly important, as they are introduced to different sights and smells with each outing.
“Dogs aren’t naturally OK with different,” McElroy said. “Difference is a key word in socialization.” In hospitals, dogs are exposed to various noises, chemicals and pain levels. Teams must know how to react appropriately to codes, different types of people, machines and elevators.
In acute care facilities like St. Joseph’s, McElroy said it’s essential the dogs are so well socialized, that the those things aren’t given a second thought.
High levels of socialization and obedience are what set this program apart. McElroy trains nearly every dog in the group, and recommends each canine meet at least 1,000 different people to be extensively socialized.
“We aren’t just asking our dogs to be friendly, but actually seek out affection from someone who isn’t looking normal,” said McElroy. This behavior cannot be taught; it’s innate, she added.
“Our therapy dog teams ‘touched’ 9,031 people at St. Joseph’s Hospital between January 1 and April 30 (of this year),” she said, referring to the amount of dog-human encounters.
During these encounters, McElroy has heard a patient speak for the first time in years, and has watched a canine wake someone from a coma.
Hospital employees aren’t immune to the canine’s healing power, either. “Sometimes nurses will suffer difficult loses, dogs help them through their grief,” said McElroy, which added that when staff feels better, they are better suited to help their patients.
Since the program officially launched in 2013, McElroy has watched perspectives shift. Staff members who were once hesitant not only welcome the canines, but request their services.
The need for therapy dog programs is growing, explained McElroy.
When asked whether the future of patient care will grow to incorporate more therapy animal programs, McElroy said, “Absolutely.”