The expression may be “laughter is the best medicine,” but if you ask patients at Memorial Hospital West in South Florida, many of them will tell you that Pumpkin is actually better. No, not the fruit (and a pumpkin is really a fruit!). The dog.
Pumpkin is Memorial’s certified pet therapy dog. The Golden Retriever was born at East Coast Assistance Dogs in Connecticut. He began training at three days old and once he passed his certification test, he packed his bags for sunny Florida and started working full-time.
Pumpkin’s main human handler and pet parent is Patricia Helsdon, the practice manager for critical care medicine. Pumpkin lives with Patricia most of the time, but there are other secondary owners. The handlers all work at the hospital and each must go through extensive training in order to become therapy parents. The handlers share custody of Pumpkin, and every few weeks he rotates to his other homes.
Every morning, Pumpkin puts on his blue vest and hospital ID card, which includes his title and photograph. He accompanies his human to the hospital, and like a doctor he starts making his rounds. Pumpkin visits with patients who are sick, waiting to go into surgery, or who are recovering from surgery. He often stops in to see the people in the hospital waiting rooms who may be worried about a friend or family member, and he also sniffs around and visits with patients during physical therapy, occupational therapy, and/or speech therapy sessions.
Upon seeing Pumpkin, most people immediately want him to come over for a visit. His toenails can be heard clicking down the hospital hallways, his bushy tail wagging the entire time. Sometimes Pumpkin likes to carry part of his red leash in his mouth. (And I personally double dog dare anyone, even the non-dog lover, to tell me this is not one of the cutest things they have ever seen.) I have spent some time with Pumpkin and the dog literally smiles. You can’t not fall in love with him.
People who see him for the first time are always curious about Pumpkin –- dogs are not normally allowed in hospitals, so everyone wants to know who he is and why he is there. Almost everyone clamors for his attention; he’s sort of like a rock star. Of course, dog lovers automatically call him over to say hello and to offer a pat on the head.
When he’s visiting patients, sometimes he will even try to climb into the hospital bed with them. Pumpkin will cozy up to people in a wheelchair and puts his head in laps, encouraging patients to stroke or brush his thick beige fur.
The young patients are especially happy to see Pumpkin. For critically ill children, a pet therapy dog can really help make a child feel less afraid while in the hospital.
With his extremely gentle personality and a fuzzy face that defies adorable, Pumpkin helps even the most nervous or upset person feel better and, at least for a little while, forget about their worries.
Each of Memorial’s six hospitals has a full-time Golden Retriever on staff. Therapy dogs are not new to hospitals, and many medical offices around the country allow private dog owners to bring their certified pet therapy dogs in to visit patients. Even the Mayo Clinic has embraced pet therapy dogs; more than a dozen certified therapy dogs are part of Mayo Clinic’s Caring Canines program.
Memorial’s other dogs — Allen, Compass, Lily, Liz, and Nutmeg (Pumpkin’s sister) — also interact with patients at the various hospitals.
The program began in 2011. The biggest challenge was dealing with the misperception that dogs carry dangerous germs. The hospital created very strict protocols and procedures, including grooming (of the dogs) and frequent hand washing (by the people). Memorial’s infection disease specialists approved and there have never been any reports of dogs spreading germs at any of the hospitals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never received a report of infection from animal-assisted therapy in any U.S. facility.
Why has the hospital invested so much for the pet therapy program? Memorial realizes the healing benefits that dogs can offer to patients. The human/animal bond can really help the sick and injured have a better experience before, during, and after a procedure or hospital stay. Most people agree that interactions with animals can significantly improve humans’ physical and emotional health. It’s been proven that simply petting a dog lowers a person’s blood pressure. Hospital patients who receive visits from pet therapy dogs are also more receptive to medical treatment and nourishment. Pet-assisted therapy programs decrease both stress and anxiety levels and promote social interaction.
Animals have a calming effect and offers patience and friendship. In some cases, animals have given people the will to live when facing a serious medical diagnosis. And for those patients who are trying to learn to walk again, improve range of motion or balance in physical therapy sessions, dogs often provide that extra bit of needed motivation and emotional support. Sometimes just by being there, Pumpkin encourages patients to exercise atrophied muscles by playing ball with him. Pumpkin often works wonders when traditional medicine fails.
Just trying to pet or stroke a dog’s fur is using fine and gross motor skills. And Pumpkin is always supportive. There’s no judgment. He offers unconditional love and affection at times when people are scared, feeling pain, or not feeling confident. Many patients are missing their own dogs at home, and seeing Pumpkin just feels familiar. He relaxes them. And because the same dogs are at the same hospital every day, they become well-known to the patients. That added familiarity often provides additional comfort to a patient, especially to those who are looking at a lengthy hospital stay. Just as people often have a favorite nurse, patients quickly come to love Pumpkin and want him to visit as often as possible.
He is so popular that he even has his own “BARK-Line” phone number patients can call to schedule requests for visits. And all of the therapy dogs have their own business cards with their pictures.
Pumpkin just seems to know who needs him. He’ll often walk around the hospital and seems to sniff out the person who needs him most at that particular moment. Whenever he walks into the room, the whole mood just gets lighter. People just feel better.
In addition to helping the sick and the recovering, Pumpkin lightens the atmosphere for hospital employees, too. Being around sickness and pain every day can get depressing for hospital workers, but then Pumpkin pads in and he “works the room” with his canine magic. Employees will often stop whatever tasks they are doing, just for a minute, to bend down and give Pumpkin a hug or rub.
“It is such a wonderful thing that dogs do for us. They give us something that you cannot get anywhere else,” said Helsdon. “Pumpkin has touched so many people and made such a difference in their lives. … Sometimes he rolls around with laughter and belly rubs, other times he just snuggles up tight and lets them hold him and cry. Whatever the case may be, a dog’s kind spirit and endless love is always the best medicine.”
Check out the Memorial Pet Therapy program on Facebook.
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About the author: Jennifer Cohen is a long-time animal advocate. She lives in South Florida with her husband Brian, their human twin daughters Sydney and Alexandria, their dogs Jake and Max, their parrot Sam, and their hamster Elliot, all rescues. Follow her on Twitter.
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