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Animal-Assisted Therapy

It takes a special someone on both ends of the leash to bring joy to people in a hospital setting.

If you walk into Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington some afternoon on your way to visit a friend or loved one, you might encounter dogs -— therapy dogs. They’re there for the same reason. The dogs are part of a successful AAT program that was implemented at Good Shepherd about four years ago with the help of two dog lovers from Fox River Grove.

Timing is Everything

Julie Zuidema, manager of volunteer services and community relations, came to Good Shepherd after starting a popular therapy dog visiting program at JourneyCare in Barrington (formerly Hospice & Palliative Care of Northeastern Illinois). “When I heard there was interest at Good Shepherd, I organized partners and was able to work through issues related to bringing animals into the clinical environment,” Zuidema said.

Dog lover Jim Buster is the director of Therapy Dogs International (TDI) Chapter 264, a volunteer organization dedicated to testing, registering, and regulating therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers. In 2009, Buster’s dog, Sadie, had just retired from search-and-rescue work, and, according to Jim, “she needed another job to do.” So, he and Sadie approached Good Shepherd and became a part of the AAT team that greeted visitors and employees in lobbies and waiting areas.  When Sadie passed away, Jim began partnering with Clancy, a former rescue dog that is qualified for in-room patient visitation.

Therapy Dogs’ Popularity Grows

“It is becoming more unusual not to have dogs visiting in hospitals than to see them there,” Zuidema explained, and Good Shepherdmaintains several unique aspects to its program.“We are not a huge program,” Zuidema added, “and I don’t plan to grow beyond 14 or 15 active dog/handler pairs. That way we really get to know our volunteers well, and they get to know people here. That makes them form stronger bonds.”

Another unique aspect is that the volunteers at the hospital are asked to come in once every week as opposed to some programs that have their dogs visit only once every month.

When asked why dogs are so popular in a hospital environment, Buster explained, “Therapy dogs make good visitors because they do not judge people.  The animals see every person as equal, regardless of age, color, gender or infirmity; and they treat everyone with the same open heart.”

Qualifying to Serve

Not just any dog becomes a part of the therapy dog program at Good Shepherd, however.  Each animal is certified by an organization that provides at least a $1 million liability policy. Before a dog is accepted into the program, Buster and Zuidema test the dogs again to witness firsthand whether the animals will be safe and comfortable in a hospital setting. That means fitting into tight locations and being able to maneuver through crowds and past people on crutches or in wheelchairs. The dogs must also show a tolerance for different noises within a hospital atmosphere and must never evidence any fear or sign of aggression.

To be visited by a therapy dog at Good Shepherd, all patients must have an order from their doctor. After visits have been sanctioned, significant care is taken to control infections. Antibacterial foam is placed on patients’ hands before and after they touch one of the dogs, and handlers also apply antibacterial foam to their hands and wipe down the dogs before and after every visit. There are many other regulations.

All dog owners/handlers are required to meet standards, as well. They must complete the regular Good Shepherd volunteer process that involves a two-hour orientation and a health screening, including a two-step tuberculosis test. They must also have a flu shot in flu season as well as submit to a background check and sign a confidentiality agreement.

Owners/handlers fulfill more than health requirements. They also bring their warmth, desire to help people and pride in the job they do. Therapy dogs, like beautiful Shih Tzu sisters Violet and Belle, are the focus of the program, the ones with their pictures on the hospital wall, the ones with their own business cards after 50 hours of volunteer service, the ones whose names are remembered. But the handlers put patients, staff and visitors at ease; they provide the voices behind their dogs. The combination of both handlers and dogs creates the magic.

Benefits of AAT

From a happy mood to lowered blood pressure to reduced anxiety, children and adult patients alike reap huge benefits from the AAT program. “Often, families waiting for a loved one who is in surgery will hug a dog and say, ‘This is just what I needed right now,’” Buster said.

Staff members and vendors, as well, have been overwhelmingly receptive to the dogs in the hospital. Often a worker will stop, kneel down in front of a dog and confess, “I needed a break — it’s been a tough day.”

Recruiting New Teams

One of Buster’s duties as TDI program director is to recruit new dogs and handlers for the hospital program. “We’re always looking for good teams,” he said.

Some word-of-mouth references come from existing handlers, recommending a dog that might be good for the program. Other times, family or friends who want to be a part of this volunteer effort express an interest. A third source of new teams comes through certification organizations such as TDI or the American Kennel Club.

Betty Gallagher, a retired school secretary from Oakwood Hills, has volunteered for Good Shepherd’s AAT program with her dog Ruby for three years. Ruby was certified by TDI. The pair spend every Monday afternoon from 12:30 p.m. to around 3 p.m. at the hospital. Gallagher says that she’s proud of the calming effect Ruby has on nurses, doctors and  patients.  “Sometimes,”  she  says,  “85-pound, long, tall German Shepherd Ruby can help a woman through a bad day simply by putting her head in the woman’s lap.”

One cancer patient with whom Ruby and Gallagher regularly visit told her, “Ruby was my rainbow today.”

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