Pet Therapy Gives the Warm Fuzzies

Ms. Wong with Delilah, left, and Orion. Custom outfits for her therapy dogs to add even more cheer to patient visits.

One afternoon, Susie Wong left quite an impression on a woman in the Stroke Unit at North Shore University Hospital. The patient’s family watched as Ms. Wong and her pet therapy dogs entered the room.

“My very loving dog, Orion, gently laid his head on her chest and looked deep into her eyes,” Ms. Wong said of her Great Pyrenees, a large and fluffy breed with a gentle and caring nature. “It was at that moment, while Orion’s breath tickled her cheek, that I picked up her hand and helped her stroke his head.”

The patient, in her 40s, had been paralyzed by the stroke, which struck during a family vacation. But soon, Ms. Wong recalls, “the attention of everyone in the room was captivated when she started to twitch her fingers in the hand stroking Orion. She regained eye movement and smiled. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

Research has shown that animals’ unconditional love and acceptance provides medical and emotional benefits to people both young and old. That’s the rationale behind the work of pet therapy volunteers like Ms. Wong within the North Shore-LIJ Health System.

“Our pet therapy visits take place at bedside or in the playroom, depending on patients’ needs. The dogs are there to help brighten the patients’ day, to help them take their minds off their situations, if only for a moment,” said Maura Tully, pet therapy coordinator in the Child Life Department at Cohen Children’s Medical Center (CCMC) of New York.

“Patients who were feeling down have smiled for the first time during a visit from a pet therapy dog,” Ms. Tully added. “I have had patients say that they forgot about their pain while they were visiting with one of the dogs. The dogs also help motivate the patients. Those who wouldn’t get out of bed or go to the playroom will do so for a pet therapy visit.”

There are currently six pet therapy dogs in the program at CCMC. Most visit patients twice a month with their owners, who are volunteers. The participants are a black Labrador retriever, yellow Lab, Maltese, Papillion, golden retriever and a greyhound. All of them were certified by a therapy dog organization before consideration for the hospital. Certified dogs also participate in onsite behavioral screening.

“They must go through a series of tests to see how they would react in the hospital environment,” said Ms. Tully, who evaluates each candidate. She has also placed volunteers with pet therapy dogs at The Zucker Hillside Hospital. LIJ Medical Center offers pet therapy too.

“We test to see how they react to walkers, wheelchairs, crutches and IV poles,” she said. “We test to see how they would react to loud noises and strange behavior. We also test to see how they engage with our pediatric patients.”

If a dog passes the behavioral screening, Ms. Tully asks to review its veterinary records. The handler must be a volunteer at the health system.

“It is quite a commitment, and it takes a very dedicated handler to get through the whole process,” she said. “We only accept the best-trained dogs into our program.”

Ms. Wong has volunteered with her dogs at North Shore University Hospital since June 2006. All of them are Great Pyrenees with champion status.

“I bring at least two at a time,” said Ms. Wong, who has accumulated more than 500 volunteer hours. She takes as many as six or eight to the Stroke Club, with the help of her youngest child of three, 15-year-old Michelle, who also has pet therapy licenses for each dog. Together they comfort and cheer up stroke survivors and their caretakers.

In addition, her pooches interact with patients on various floors of the hospital, including the Child Life Department and the Palliative Care Unit. They also visit the Stern Rehabilitation Center. Wherever the dogs go, they wear custom-made outfits.

Ms. Wong is one of eight volunteers who bring their dogs to North Shore University Hospital for pet therapy, said Lisa Breiman, director of volunteer services. “I see first-hand what a tremendous positive impact pet therapy has on our patients, their family members and also our staff, who look forward to their visits,” Ms. Breiman says.

Aside from volunteering, Ms. Wong works five overnight shifts per week as a technician’s and doctor’s assistant, as well as a receptionist, at Central Veterinary Associates’ 24-hour emergency hospital in Valley Stream. Henry Wong, her husband of 26 years, is a pharmacist at North Shore University Hospital.

Ms. Wong, who lives in Woodmere and also has two cats, lectures about pet therapy at various schools and colleges. Instead of accepting compensation, she encourages her listeners to donate to North Shore University Hospital.

“This is a passion,” she said, adding that it takes two hours to groom each dog the day prior to pet therapy visits, which she does one to three times per week. “It’s not something that I get paid for. But the reward is so much more than money.”

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