Blind World Magazine

Guide Dogs bring canine therapy to hospital.

December 27, 2005.
Marin Independent Journal, California.

Whether it is the solace of their sympathetic eyes or the soothing touch of their soft coats, dogs visiting hospitals seem to benefit patients.

Guide Dogs for the Blind and Marin General Hospital have teamed up for the Dog Therapy Program, a pilot program to begin next month, in which six guide dogs and their handlers will visit patients.

"Patients not only get a great deal of comfort from having contact with an animal - a dog in particular - but it has been studied and noted that there are specific medical benefits that occur," said Etta Allen, whose nine-year tenure on the Marin General Hospital board of directors will end this month.

She referred to a recent study in which anxiety dropped 24 percent in a random sample of acute and critically ill heart patients who were visited by dogs and a human volunteer. Kathie Cole, a nurse at the University of California at Los Angeles, was the senior author of the study.

"Studies have shown that the act of stroking a dog not only lowers blood pressure and heart rate, it also provides a happy diversion and lifts the spirits," said Kathy Meyer, the hospital's director of volunteer services. "These are important elements in the aid of the healing process and the reduction of stress."

Allen also is on the Guide Dogs board of directors and has a German shepherd named Deanne who spent nearly 10 years as a guide dog before retiring two years ago.

Allen came upon a dog therapy program called Canine Creative Wellness Program at Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa more than a year ago while looking for "a second career" for Deanne.

"She was trained as a service dog and is very tuned into people," Allen said. "I thought that ... it would be good for her to have more of the exposure that she is used to."

She and Deanne joined Canine Wellness, led by Roz Morris. Morris shared specifics of her program, which became the model to help shape the one at Marin General, Allen said.

Allen said she then approached Guide Dogs to join Marin General and make dogs and their handlers available.

"The dogs involved are in various Guide Dogs programs - retired guides, breeders or career change," Allen said.

"They already have a great deal of training and are bred for temperament and intelligence. You have a mellow dog that by breeding seems very intuitive to people and their needs and is extremely obedient. That is what you need when go into a patient's room."

Allen said she will train dog handlers who might not have worked in a hospital setting before.

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