March 18, 2010

Pet care

MEREDITH GOAD

— By

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 30, 2007....Volunteer Linda Hawkes (left) and her two "therapy dogs", Ira and Refund, confer with hospital administrator Janet Corbett prior to a visit with patients at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 30, 2007....Volunteer Linda Hawkes and her two "therapy dogs", Ira and Refund, regularly visit with patients at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland where they are welcomed by patients and staff alike.

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Staff Writer

It's natural for people to become excited when they get a tax refund.

Maybe they'll even give it a little kiss.

But things are a bit different for the patients and staff at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland.

Their Refund kisses back.

Refund is a 5-year-old Rottweiler -- named after that other refund -- who makes weekly rounds at the hospital with his 11-year-old grandmother, IRA. The dogs plant sloppy kisses on patients' hands and each others' faces. This time of year, decked out in reindeer antlers or red collars with jingle bells, these certified therapy dogs are bringing a little holiday cheer to patients recovering from brain injuries, strokes and other difficult medical conditions.

''Oh, you're so sweet,'' a patient in a wheelchair cooed as one of the big brown dogs nuzzled her during a recent encounter. ''Aren't you gorgeous?''

Refund and Ira -- named after the retirement account but pronounced like the man's name -- elicit lots of ''Awwws'' and high-pitched, talking-to-a-baby voices as they roam the busy brain injury floor, where there's lots of activity and chatter among patients and staff moving around the hallways. The dogs' handler, Linda Hawkes, is a nurse who works here. She brings her pets in on her days off.

''The people, the noise, the crowds, the petting -- they love it all,'' Hawkes said. ''Nothing bothers these two.''

Therapy dogs are different from service dogs. Service animals are matched up with people who have serious physical limitations and need help with tasks such as picking things up off the floor or pushing elevator buttons, said Bill McCullough, an associate professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Southern Maine who has studied the benefits of therapy dogs.

Therapy dogs provide more emotional than physical support and help with quality of life issues, McCullough said. Research has shown that the dogs can have a calming effect on nursing home residents. Their presence encourages people who have had strokes to practice their speech, and gives people with physical disabilities more opportunity and motivation to get out of bed and start walking again.

McCullough said what he's seen in his research is ''more subtle and long term.'' The dogs act as a go-between for patients and staff, helping patients to open up more and share their feelings with their caregivers.

Kathy Kroll, the certified recreational therapist and volunteer coordinator at the rehab hospital, said if patients are ''down in the dumps,'' they tend to brighten up when Refund and Ira saunter into their room.

''It's that unconditional love,'' Kroll said ''The dog doesn't care whether you're missing an arm or a leg. It doesn't matter if you're in a wheelchair. They don't judge.''

Helen Galazka, 92, was headed toward the elevators in her wheelchair when she spied Refund and Ira. A big smile spread across her face and stayed there. Galazka, a psychologist, started a therapy dog program at a Massachusetts hospital ''not too long ago. I worked until I was 85.''

A slip on some gravel landed her in the hospital and forced her to retire. But she still remembers how she coaxed a patient with a sheltie into the program, and how it helped him as well as other patients.

''I had one fellow with ALS who had understandably given up,'' Galazka recalled as she rubbed Refund on his neck. ''But he had a dog, and I mentioned (the program) to him. He was outraged at first. He couldn't do that. He barely got himself around. But he listened and started coming, and he was so exhilarated, you would have thought he was running the hospital. It was lovely.''

Janet Corbett, manager of the floor dedicated to brain injury and stroke patients, says the case she remembers most at the Portland hospital involved a girl in a wheelchair.

''The dog came in -- I think it was Ira -- and put her head on the girl's leg, and the girl raised her hand and reached out and petted Ira,'' Corbett said. ''And it was the very first time we'd seen any kind of response, that she knew what was around her or who was around her. I don't think there was a dry eye in the room.''

Dr. Elissa Charbonneau, medical director at the hospital and director of the brain injury program, said she has seen patients who are otherwise not very interactive ''light up'' when one of the dogs comes up to them and licks them.

''They might speak or gesture in a way that we haven't seen,'' she said. ''I think it motivates patients, It's an emotional support for them as well. A lot of patients are away from their pets and really miss them, so it's nice for them to be able to see the therapy dogs while they're here.''

The hospital also has a room where family members can bring in patients' pets so they can visit with each other.

New England Rehabilitation Hospital is not the only local health care facility that allows pets to visit with patients. Maine Medical Center and some area nursing homes also have pet therapy programs.

The dogs used in pet therapy have to become certified through special training to make sure they have the right temperament for this work and won't be spooked by medical equipment, wheelchairs, canes or crutches.

The dogs also have to pass the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen Test. Even if a pet seems lovable, it will not always work as a therapy dog, said Kroll, the recreational therapist, so they need to be evaluated by an objective observer. Dogs that have been abused may be too nervous and could end up rejecting patients.

Kroll said she also requires the animal's handlers to show annual proof from a veterinarian that the animal is up-to-date on all of its immunizations.

Occasionally the five dogs that volunteer at New England Rehab are used in physical therapy. A simple movement such as brushing one of the dogs can help a patient start regaining use of a hand that's been injured by a stroke.

''You could engage a patient with a short attention span a lot longer (with a therapy dog), or somebody who doesn't have a lot of endurance,'' Kroll said. ''They're probably going to stand a little longer and throw a ball to a dog than to throw it to another person.''

Matt Carroll, a new 21-year-old patient with a brain injury, recently had his first experience with the visiting dogs in the hospital's therapy room. Linda Hawkes handed Carroll a few chunks of low-fat chicken hot dogs to feed to Refund and Ira.

''Do you have a dog of your own Matt?'' she asked.

''No,'' Carroll replied, a slight smile on his face as the dogs gobbled up the bits he tossed them.

Hawkes led Ira in front of Carroll for a more formal introduction, calling the Rottweiler by her pet name, Bubbie.

''Bubbie, you sit,'' she said. ''Bubbie, sit. Sit. Give me your paw, give me your paw. Can you give Matt your paw? There, Matt likes that. Yeah, good girl.

''She sure likes you,'' she said to Carroll. ''You want her to visit you again sometime?''

''Yeah,'' Carroll said.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 30, 2007....Volunteer Linda Hawkes and her two "therapy dogs", Ira and Refund, visit Helen Galazka, 92, a patient at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland on a recent visit.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 30, 2007....Volunteer Linda Hawkes and her two "therapy dogs", Ira and Refund, visit with Richard Bartlett and nurse, Debbie Berg, during a visit with patients at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland recently.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 30, 2007....Nurse Janis Greim (left) watches as patient Mary Peavey feeds a treat to Linda Hawkes' "therapy dogs", Ira and Refund, during recent visit to the New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 30, 2007....Volunteer Linda Hawkes and her two "therapy dogs", Ira and Refund, visit with Matt Carroll, a patient at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland during one of their recent visits

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 30, 2007....Volunteer Linda Hawkes and her two "therapy dogs", Ira and Refund,walk the halls while visiting with patients at the New England Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, November 30, 2007....Refund (left) and Ira are"therapy dogs" belonging to Linda Hawkes, a volunteer and recreational therapist at the New Enland Rehabilitation Hospital in Portland. Hawkes brings the dogs to the hospital regularly to visit with patients.



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