The pet prescription

Six dogs, three months, 50 visits. Those are the statistics from January through March of this year for the new pet therapy program offered by Rice Hospice. The numbers will probably grow, now that 15 more volunteer dogs and handlers recently completed their training. (That’s Jade in the picture above; doesn’t she look like a wonderful dog?)

The value of companion animals to human physical and emotional health is well accepted these days. Oh, sure, there are a few hard-hearted wretches skeptics out there who are impervious to the joys that can be wrought by a pet, but for the most part pet therapy is considered pretty much in the mainstream.

It can be easy to forget that for many years, animals were not welcome in health care settings. They were considered hairy, germy, rambunctious and unpredictable. Gradually, however, most of these barriers have been overcome. Protocols have been established for safely bringing animals into hospitals on visits, allowing them to live in nursing homes, and using them as a furry form of therapy with patients young and old. A healthy, well-behaved pet who’s supervised by his handler is now regarded as a benefit rather than a potential liability.

It says something about the human-animal bond to see so many people volunteer for the Rice Hospice pet therapy program. The program isn’t even a year old yet, but already it has 21 dogs and handlers plus a waiting list.

Not everyone makes the cut. Some dogs are weeded out during a preliminary round of temperament testing. The dogs must be able to pass both the AKC Canine Good Citizen test and a Therapy Dogs Inc. three-day training workshop that includes on-site observation of the dog and handler with residents at local nursing homes. Only if they pass all these hurdles can they officially be registered as a therapy dog. As for the handlers, they not only must be able to work successfully with their dog but they also have to undergo training of their own – 12 hours of Rice Hospice volunteer training and another four hours of general hospital volunteer training.

It’s clearly a substantial commitment, and it doesn’t end with the initial training. Each year additional training will be required to ensure the dogs and their handlers are still up to snuff.

These volunteers are doing this because they want to, and because they believe it will make a difference for someone. Many things in medicine can be costly, unpleasant or painful for the patient, and might not ultimately confer any benefit. Not so with pet therapy, which is about as straightforward as it comes.

The folks at Rice Hospice have waited a long time to be able to offer this program. Now they finally can, and it’s a real addition to how the community cares for dying patients and their families.

West Central Tribune photo by Ron Adams

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