Café Scientifique, Up Next: Therapy Animals in Medicine: Preparation, Interactions, & Applications in Modern Healthcare

May 23, 2013 at 2:57 pm


By Robert Higa, Certified Therapy Team Training Instructor, Delta Society Pet Partners, and PAWS (Pet Assisted Wellness @ Stanford) program at Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital

Robert will be speaking at our upcoming Café Scientifique series on Thursday, May 30 from 7 – 8:30 p.m. at our Palo Alto center.

When the time was finally right for me to adopt a dog, I knew what I wanted: a friendly, medium-sized dog, a good companion animal that would enjoy lots of outdoor activities and also be content to nap while I pursued my law school studies. After months of looking at all the local shelters, I came across Rita, a mixture of border collie, English setter, and Australian shepherd. She had been hit by a car and was recovering from surgery to repair a badly broken leg. Her owners couldn’t afford to pay the thousands of dollars in vet bills, so they’d abandoned her at the animal hospital. As I watched Rita with staff at the Pets in Need shelter, I saw her charm and her ability to connect with people. Soon she was nuzzling up to me, and I knew that she was the dog I had been searching for.

Rita’s aptitude for Frisbee convinced me to have her try out for the Baseball Aquatic Retrieval Korps (BARK) team of water dogs sponsored by the San Francisco Giants and managed by Pets in Need. Dogs in BARK retrieve home run balls hit out of the stadium into the water at McCovey Cove. They work from boats, diving into the water on command, then they follow hand signals to locate and fetch the balls. After several months of training we made the team. Rita soon became team representative for media events and fund-raisers, promoting awareness of abandoned animals throughout the Bay Area. The publicity gained by the BARK team, especially during the Giants’ 2002 World Series-season, contributed to record-setting fund-raising. Adoptions at Pets in Need more than doubled.

During our three years on the BARK team, I learned about pet therapy (animal-assisted activities [AAA] and animal-assisted therapy [AAT]). It seemed to me that Rita’s wonderful temperament and her aptitude for doing tricks and entertaining people made her particularly well-suited for working with patients in hospitals. After a year of additional training we passed our first Delta Society evaluation in March of 2003. In 2005 we were accepted for PAWS, the pet-assisted wellness group at Stanford University Hospital and Clinics. With PAWS, we have paid regular visits to the medical/surgical unit, the physical and occupational therapy unit (PTOT), and the day hospital unit of the children’s hospital (the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford).

The PTOT sessions are always full of activity as we work with the staff to assist patients in many types of physical rehabilitation. On one typical day, we worked with a young stroke victim on regaining motor skills and learning to use a signboard to communicate. At first the patient simply petted Rita, great for motor skills and a pleasure for both. Then the patient became a little more animated and unsteadily but successfully pointed out letters on the signboard: T-R-I-C-K-S.

I explained a few of Rita’s tricks and corresponding hand signals. With very limited motor function and no verbal capacity, but armed with a tasty dog biscuit in one hand, the patient managed somewhat abbreviated hand signals. The ever-motivated Rita connected with each one and responded flawlessly. I will never forget the look on that patient’s face.

At the children’s hospital day unit we visit with children receiving infusion therapy such as chemotherapy, blood work, and dialysis. Rita’s tricks always bring smiles to the kids and provide relief and welcome diversion from their treatment. Some of the patients are Rita’s “cuddle buddies,” children who prefer cuddling and petting.

One day at the children’s hospital we saw a little boy who was anxious to get to Rita. His mom put him down on the floor for a visit. He took a few steps holding her hand, then let go and continued walking the rest of the way to Rita. Once he reached us he started gently petting her on the head. I noticed that the mother was excited, waving at doctors, nurses, and therapy staff to watch as the boy stood steadily on his own, happily stroking the dog. I learned then that for months, ever since he had started treatments for an acute infection, the boy had not been strong enough or motivated enough to walk or stand on his own. I showed him how to balance a biscuit on Rita’s nose and explained that she would wait for him to say “O.K.” before tossing it up and catching it in her mouth. Rita got a large ration of biscuits that day.

It is tremendously satisfying to witness and participate – even in a small way – in a patient’s recovery, but when our visits include patients who don’t survive their illness, the magic of a happy, friendly dog can be especially meaningful. While I may get caught up in the emotion surrounding the plight of a sick child, Rita always seems capable of bringing out the best in any moment. Recently we visited lovely little three-year-old Ava who was tired and upset after a long day of tests and procedures. Ava immediately invited Rita to join her on the bed and then called for a group hug with her mom, Rita, and me. At the end of our visit Ava thanked Rita with a gift of some precious fish artwork she had made herself. This was our final visit with Ava on one of the child’s last remaining days. That day was made significantly brighter by the simple, heartfelt connection between a special kid and a special dog. An experience such as this confirms my belief that there is no better place for Rita and me.

Mary Delaney, charge nurse at the hospital, is one of Rita’s fans. She says, “Rita distracts the children from the rigorous effects of chemotherapy and other invasive procedures. I see them smile and laugh as they watch her perform her amazing repertoire of tricks or settle down to snuggle with her. I see the anxiety on a parent’s face disappear for a while when Rita and Robert enter a room.”

In 2005, Rita and I assisted in the development and expansion of the visiting-animal program at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF). I provided consultation and, with Rita, joined in as one of the founding therapy teams at ARF, where the Pet Hug Pack program today includes over eighty handler-animal teams visiting sixty-five facilities including schools, hospitals, adult day care, and rehab centers.

It has been a remarkable journey for both of us. As Rita relied on help and kindness from many human strangers, now she provides assistance and comfort to human patients. For me it has been an enriching and privileged experience to participate with Rita in these activities. Amid the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty of health crises, Rita and I are there for the sole purpose of providing pure and simple warmth and comfort in the form of four paws, a wet nose, and a wagging tail.

Rita passed away in February 2012 at the age of seventeen and after eight years of therapy service. She remains present throughout all of Robert’s presentation and training materials.

Robert will be joined by Karenin, his new dog-in-training, at his speaking engagement here on May 30. Please visit our website for more details.