Dogs dispatched to comfort ill children

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Barked: Wed Mar 29, '06 7:46pm PST 
Jane is scampering around the children's cancer center, nuzzling a toddler who had a brain tumor removed, when 14-year-old Alexia walks in.

Girl and dog both flop on the hospital floor. Alexia scratches Jane's belly two-handed and gives a big smile. Jane licks Alexia's face.

The two met when Alexia was horribly sick with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, when she was suffering through chemotherapy, when she was sad and wanted a friend. Alexia couldn't get out of her hospital bed then, so Jane would curl into bed with her.

"She saved the day," Alexia says, rubbing Jane's thick black coat near her "I AM A THERAPY DOG" tag until Jane's handler, Teri Conroy, finally walks her over to another child in for treatment.

Therapy dogs, so often associated with nursing homes, have expanded their range. The trained animals now comfort people everywhere from disaster sites to hospitals to schools. At Albany Medical Center, doctors and nurses, figuring a bit of affection is good medicine, rely on volunteers like Conroy and dogs like Jane.

Jane is 2 1/2 years old. Her coat is trimmed tight with a rounded bang over her button eyes that gives her a look of constant attentiveness. Aides and nurses are always saying "Awwww!" when she passes in the hall, and asking: "What kind of dog is that?"

Conroy always answers: "Portuguese water dog!"

Jane likes to lick faces and will hop on hospital beds to get to one if invited. When a boy on a pediatric ward greets her wearing a surgical mask, Jane licks the mask. The boy puts on purple gloves to scratch Jane's tummy because of germs, but it barely matters.

"Ohh! You don't want me to stop!" the boy says. "You're so cute!"

Jane is part of a pack of about 14 dogs working the halls of Albany Medical Center. Among the others are Honor, a snow-colored, 130-pound Great Pyrenees who wears sunglasses, Honee, Muddy, Darla, Rocky, Viva and Seamus, Conroy's other therapy dog.

They each have their own bedside manner. Jane is bubbly. Seamus is laid back. Honee, a 9-pound coton de tulear, can be picked up. Honor cannot, and sometimes naps during group therapy.

Dogs are dispatched around the hospital based on requests from medical workers. Sometimes, three dogs at one time are visiting the young, the old, the recovering and the terminal.

There is research suggesting that visits from dogs can provide physical benefits for patients, like lower stress levels. But Dr. Richard Sills, director of Albany's Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, stresses the psychological boost dogs provide to young patients and their families. They cheer up children, he said, and make hospitals more welcoming.

"The demand is always more than the supply," said Kelly Morrone, manager of volunteer services. "Never enough dogs."

Conroy carries a list of patients to visit, but will also walk through wards repeating, "Does anyone want a dog visit?"

A boy comes out to pet Jane, rolling along his intravenous unit. A mother beckons Jane to her teenage son's bed, where he is dozing. Jane hops on. He drapes an arm around her and shuts his eyes.

Jane is popular at the pediatric cancer center, where she has seen many of the children through hard times. Alexia, in remission now, used to get visits in the examining room and in her bed when things were touch and go.

"She would be out of it and she would be so weak and she would be talking about the dog coming by," said Alexia's mother, Pam Eubanks. "This was like the only thing when she was sick _ and she was sick constantly when she got diagnosed _ this was the only thing that raised her spirit."

Therapy dogs like Jane work not only in hospitals, but in schools and libraries, where they sit while children practice reading aloud. Therapy dogs were dispatched to Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attacks and to the Gulf Coast after Katrina.

"In the last few years it's taken off like hot cakes," said Ann Kaczkowski, administrator for Therapy Dogs International, one of the groups that offers testing and accreditation. The not-for-profit group registered more than 12,000 dogs and 9,500 handlers registered.