Helping Paws

Violet Dalton-Katz gingerly picked her way across the cafeteria floor of the Blessed Sacrament School in Manhattan, delicately sidestepping the tempting comestibles strewn at her paws. No piece of bologna for her, no smidgen of Big Mac, no (steady, now) hot-dog slice. My golden retriever wasn’t about to blow it. She had trained more than six months for this moment. The crucible of victuals represented the last hurdle of a multi-phase testing process – which included “maintaining a sit-stay position” while being poked and prodded and tempted by various toys and rolling balls. Violet and a dozen fellow aspirants needed to ace each test to become probationary members of the Vancouver Pet Assisted Therapy team, canine division.

Pet – or animal-assisted – therapy has gained mainstream recognition in the past fifteen years, as more studies underscore the benefits (reduced blood pressure, slowed heart rate, mental stimulation) animals bring to the infirm, elderly, depressed, and chronically ill. The Vancouver program was born in 1991, when Pat McGregor, the director-owner of Vancouver Dog Training, was able to interest Virginia Crosby, the director of Volunteer Services at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, in establishing a trial pet-assisted-therapy program. Vancouver has graduated nearly 50 dogs in four and a half years – including Violet, whose class of ten included a standard poodle with a fancy topiary hairdo; an exuberant vizsla that refused for months to do a down-stay; a docile Portuguese water spaniel; a genetically dwarfed Rottweiler; a lumbering, goofy Doberman; a rescued sheltie; and a couple of mixed-breeds.

The way the program works, a group of dogs, under the supervision of Vancouver program coordinator Susan Greenbaum, visit Roosevelt’s Pediatric Unit (and occasionally the Pediatric Special Care Unit, the equivalent of an I.C.U.) at least once a week, presenting themselves in the day room for petting, hugging, and nuzzling; they make house calls to individual rooms, often nestling on a bed next to a child; one dog usually promenades in the corridors, an enjoyable patient diversion but also a vital therapeutic activity that encourages post-op children to ambulate.

“This is just a phenomenal, amazing program,” says Rob Quinn, the coordinator of the in-patient Child Life Program. “These dogs provide tremendous interaction and total, unconditional, nonjudgmental love. They bring a sense of normalcy to these kids, who are isolated from the community for long periods of time.”

Some dogs – like Max, a Shih Tzu – are employed as procedure dogs, helping to demystify medical equipment and potentially scary situations. Children take Max’s blood pressure and temperature, listen to his heartbeat, bandage his paws. Dogs often leave the hospital with colorful Band-Aids haphazardly adorning their fur.

Most (though not all) pet-therapy programs are structured around dogs, and variously have connections to nursing homes, hospitals, mental institutions, prisons, homes for disabled children, long-term aids facilities, residential physical-rehabilitation sites, and homes for blind adults. All require that the animal have a clean bill of health from a vet, as well as temperament and skills screening; human handlers must show proof of pet immunizations required by the health code.

To get your dog started in a program,call any of the following:

Vancouver: 877-7116. Dogs must first have passed the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test to enter.

Bide-A-Wee (Pet Therapy Program):

ASPCA (Visiting Pet Program):
876-7700, ext. 4421.

Delta Society (Pet Partners):

Animal Medical Center (Pet OutreachProgram):
838-8100, ext. 269; Susan Cohen, director ofcounseling.

Therapy Dogs International, Inc.:

Helping Paws