Pet Therapy, Patient Benefit

Kentucky hospitals are a wagging about growing success of ‘canine counselors’

By Clary Estes

Jennifer Royster (foreground) and Shannon Weil say hello to Boogie Woogie, right, and Tucker, therapy dogs for the UK Chandler hospital, also known as canine counselors.

Humans aren’t the only caregivers working in Kentucky health-care facilities. Across the state, facilities from nursing homes to hospital intensive-care units and children’s wards to behavioral health clinics are utilizing man’s best friend to help patients recover, manage pain and undertake therapy challenges – as well as just making those settings cheerier.

It has long been known that pets provide people with emotional comfort, but in health-care settings today it is obvious animals also can help patients recover in fundamentally important ways both mentally and physiologically.

The use of animals in health care typically falls into three main categories: therapy pets, service dogs and emotional-support animals. Within Kentucky’s health-care system the focus is on therapy animals (typically dogs, but also cats, horses, etc.) and service dogs to help patients recover as well as live a fulfilling, independent day-to-day life.

In Kentucky, hospitals are using therapy animals more and more. Bourbon Community Hospital, Frankfort Regional, Our Lady of Peace (Louisville), Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, Spring View Hospital (Lebanon), St. Claire HealthCare (Morehead), Sts. Mary & Elizabeth (Louisville), The Ridge (Lexington) and UK Chandler Hospital (Lexington) – to name a few – all utilize pet therapy. St. Elizabeth Healthcare operates its Paws For Patients therapy animal program at its five Northern Kentucky hospitals in Covington, Edgewood, Florence, Fort Thomas and Williamstown.

Comparatively, service dogs live one-on-one with beneficiaries in the home, while therapy dogs are utilized on a day-to-day basis within treatment facilities. The types of therapy dogs used by Kentucky facilities also differ based on need. In general, there are three types of therapy dogs: facility therapy dogs, animal assisted therapy dogs and therapeutic visitation dogs.

Facility therapy dogs and animal assisted therapy dogs assist physical and occupational therapists in meeting goals important to a person’s recovery. At the UK Hospital, Carmine, an English Labrador Retriever, is the star of the 8th floor, where he helps patients get out of bed and walk after cardiac surgery, an important step for a successful recovery.

“You’ve heard of dog walkers,” staff on the 8th floor joke, “well, Carmine is a people walker!”

They seem to know what’s needed

The therapy dogs at UK are referred to as canine counselors and even have their own business cards.

Therapeutic visitation dogs are the most frequently utilized type of therapy dog in health-care facilities. At the UK Hospital, Ellen Karpf and her two Golden Retrievers, Bonnie and Clyde, were the vanguards of the pet therapy program and started by visiting the adjoining Kentucky Children’s Hospital and the Markey Cancer Center.

Deemed successful, the program was embraced and expanded. In October 2018, the program had upwards of 30 certified canine counselors visiting multiple wards every week. Therapy dogs provide patients with a sense of calm and affection that is often difficult to develop otherwise, and the dogs operate with a preternatural sense of what patients need.

Dr. Susan Lephart, the animal assisted therapy coordinator for Integrative Medicine and Health at UK, recounts a memorably effective session.

“Boogie Woogie (Susan’s canine counselor) was in the emergency department and they had a girl who was having some psychological issues and was very distraught. The doctor came and asked if we would mind her visiting with Boogie Woogie. This 16-year-old girl was just weeping, all curled up in a ball on her bed. We walked in and the nurse stood there with us and asked (her) if she would like to see a therapy dog.

“And all she did was nod. Before I could even say, ‘Would you mind if he put his paws up on the bed?’ Boogie was on the bed with his face right to her nose. And there was this connection between the two of them that was just so remarkable. The nurse beside her got all teared up. I got all teared up because it was as if Boogie Woogie was saying to the girl, ‘I got you.’ She started petting him. He put his paws on her shoulders. She stopped crying and then he just laid down beside her and let her pet him. By the time the doctor came back in and took one look at Boogie and this girl, she said, ‘Well, I see we have another doctor here today.’ ”

Wendy Corman is director of recreational therapy at The Ridge Behavioral Health System in Lexington.

“Often throughout our therapy dog visits,” Corman said, “you’ll hear patients say things like, ‘I miss my dogs at home so much, this is just great,’ or ‘Thank you so much. This just made my day.’ ”

Measurable medical benefits

Kentucky hospitals are finding measurable benefits to the use of therapy dogs as an example of nonpharmacologic intervention to reduce suffering, with potential downstream benefits including the reduction of suffering by humanizing the intensive-care unit; reducing loneliness in patients; improving mood among patients and staff; increasing engagement of patients by increasing self-efficacy and motivation to engage in rehabilitation and medical care; and reducing physiologic burdens, as demonstrated by slowed respiratory and heart rates in patients after therapy dog visits.

The use of therapy dogs has been linked to the reduction of pain and the increase of pain tolerance in patients, which could help address Kentucky’s opioid addiction problem. Increased use of therapy dogs is being considered both in hospitals and detox clinics to help lessen “dope sickness” pain as addicts work through recovery.

Anecdotally, Lephart recalls a comment by a patient who has chronic pain. “I take pain meds every day, and I’ve found that if I pet a dog for 10 minutes I can reduce the amount of pain medication I take in a day by half,” the patient told her.

Meanwhile, perhaps an equally important part of the therapy dog conversation is the benefit to the staff.

“The therapy dogs are here as much for staff as they are for the patients,” Lephart said, “because if the staff is stressed and unhappy, they are not going to perform as well and that affects the recovery of the patients.”

The value of the office dog

There is growing evidence coming from UK to back the use of therapy dogs in work settings.

In recent and ongoing studies conducted by Lephart with UK medical students, there was a direct correlation between students interacting with therapy dogs and how they performed on their medical exams.

“All medical students showed a perceived improvement in their pre-exam stress and anxiety levels after interaction with the therapy dogs, with first-year medical students showing a 60 percent improvement and second-year medical students showing a 49 percent improvement,” the study reported.

Not only did the students show better scores on their medical exams, they also showed significantly lower levels of stress, anger, depression and shame. Medical students with a high incidence of suicidal thoughts showed marked improvement and lowering of depression indicators after interacting with therapy dogs.

And if therapy dogs at UK are doing so much good for patients and staff, it is hardly surprising that office dogs across the state and country are improving productivity and wellness across the business spectrum.

Bosley, a 90-pound labradoodle famous in the Woodland Triangle neighborhood of Lexington, is the local office dog at Xometry, a company that specializes in on-demand manufacturing. Bosley’s owner, William Krueger said, “Bosley is a calming and de-stressing presence in the office. He greets everyone in the morning, visibly brightening their day. He also makes rounds throughout the day, giving everyone a chance to turn away from their computers for a few minutes and de-stress. Plus, it means free scratches and treats for him!”

Dog Training Program Benefits Patients – and Many Others

Paws With Purpose, a 501(c) nonprofit organization based in Louisville, “provides highly skilled assistance dogs as partners to children and adults with physical disabilities or other special needs free of charge. Its dogs provide comfort and companionship, help to break down social barriers, and perform many tasks that help their partners lead more independent lives.”

Many people know about seeing-eye dogs, mobility-assistance dogs, and seizure-alert and -response dogs, but dogs today also are trained to help children with autism and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

One beneficiary of the program, the mother of a child with autism said, “I wanted a service dog to help with social aspects and be a bridge for Jonathan (her child) to engage with people, since he doesn’t reach out to establish relationships. Ian’s (the service dog’s) incredible bond with my son has exceeded all my dreams and expectations. Jonathan is able to self soothe for the first time in his life by running his fingers through Ian’s fur or simply lying beside him. He also wakes up happy to Ian jumping on the bed and initiating play, and he no longer runs away or darts into the street when we’re in public places. Ian has given us our life back.”

Another beneficiary of the program, a combat veteran suffering from PTSD, reports, “Noble (his service dog) has given me the reassurance that everything is OK when I go into crowded stores or traffic. When I have nightmares, he is able to wake me calmly. Due to my injuries that I received while in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have balance and stability issues. Noble is able to assist by retrieving dropped objects for me and assist with stability. Because of what Noble is able to provide me, I am now able to enjoy life with my family once again and actively participate in my children growing up. Without Paws with Purpose, this never would have been possible.”

Paws With Purpose takes its assistance mission further – it instructs inmates from the Kentucky Correctional Facility for Women in nearby Oldham County to train its service dogs, giving convicts there a chance to gain job skills and give back to the community.

All puppies are given basic obedience instruction to start, then trained for the specific needs of clients as the program progresses for two to three years total.

“All (inmate) participants have to have at least a GED to get involved in the Paws With Purpose program, so it can motivate somebody who did not already have their high school diploma to study for it while incarcerated,” said Elaine Weisberg, a Paws With Purpose volunteer and board member. “Accepted participants are then trained and gain new job skills. The program also allows participants to communicate with volunteers who care for the dogs on the weekends on a weekly basis outside of the correctional facility as they train the puppies, which helps with their communication skills.

“But they also will tell you that the positive reinforcement associated with the training is very helpful. They are watching the puppies learn things and are getting a lot of unconditional love from the dogs. Our trainers also get a chance to meet the client who’s going to get the dog and work with them on what they want that dog to do for them. This gives them a lot of feedback, and it’s a very uplifting and encouraging and lets them know that while they’re spending their time incarcerated they’re doing something that’s really going to make a difference on the outside.”  

Paws With Purpose provides its puppies in training with socializing opportunities, including working with children who need to practice reading, providing them with a judgement-free space to practice their reading skills, among others. So the program is a win-win-win for Kentucky, helping with the day-to-day needs of people with disabilities and providing a degree of behavioral health support to a population that is frequently denied such support systems.


Clary Estes is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]

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