Therapy dog Benson is one of 26 special volunteer animals who bring joy and comfort to patients, visiting families and employees at Henry Ford Hospital West Bloomfield. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News


West Bloomfield Township — Visitors walking into Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital are greeted by an oil painting of the hospital’s first therapy dog, Henry. And the lucky ones run into the real thing.

Then there’s Hope. And Benson. All three canines are owned by the hospital and trained to cheer and help patients, staff and visitors.

Henry, a 12.5-year-old mixed English black Labrador, came on board in 2009 and is believed to be the first hospital therapy dog in the state, according to Linda Smith, director of volunteer services, which includes therapy dogs.

“Dogs had been effectively used in nursing homes, schools, libraries and homes,” said Smith. “So at the end of 2008, we thought Henry Ford Hospital would be a good place to try the program. The patient, the public and the staff, all love them.”

Depending on whom you talk with, therapy dogs are a form of emotional medicine, and have become another instrument in the toolbox used by professionals in caring for patients.

Potential visits with therapy dogs can be requested by patients at many hospitals, which screen patients to make sure there are no allergies or past trauma to prevent such visits.

Therapy dogs like Benson inject tranquility into the often-stressful environment of a hospital room, Smith said. For a few minutes, a patient’s fears and anxiety melt away while staring into the non-judgmental eyes of a golden retriever.

A stroll around the hospital with Benson makes you feel you are in the shadow of a rock star. Children and adults choose to stop whatever they are doing, break into smiles, affectionate “awws” and heap praise upon Benson in his snappy red “Therapy Dog” vest, which prominently displayed this request: “Please Pet Me.”

Kim Barch of West Bloomfield was pushing her daughter, Alexandria, in a wheelchair on a recent morning when she spotted Benson a few feet away.

“What a good boy!” Barch gushed, fondly stroking Benson’s head, much to his satisfaction, as Alexandria, 26, looked on.

Alexandria has Rett Syndrome, a rare, noninherited genetic postnatal neurological disorder that was diagnosed when she was 3 years old. It affects nearly every aspect of a child’s life, including speech, walking, eating, even breathing.

“I got a golden retriever for her 13 years ago and we have been breeding pups for 10 years,” Barch said. “Before we had a dog, there was a therapy program at my daughter’s school and she was always very happy when a dog was brought in. So we researched it and found the positive effects it had with children with special needs were huge.”

Barch believes there is visitation stimulation as well for her daughter, who tries to pet therapy dogs she encounters.

“She has been hospitalized here several times over the years and has seen several of the therapy dogs and they never fail to bring a smile or calming effect to her — there is a real connection.”

Special ‘medicine’

At Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, which has 191 beds, Henry is joined by Benson, a 5.5-year-old golden retriever, and Hope, a 3-year-old black Labrador.

“Benson and Hope work five days a week from 8 a.m. to noon, with a midmorning half-hour break,” said Stephanie Scheer, a hospital spokeswoman. “Henry works about once a week — he’s semi-retired, as we like to say.”

In addition, Scheer said, 24 personally owned pets visit patients and staff weekdays, evenings, weekends, even holidays, for one to two-hour shifts.

“Some come once a week, some come multiple times,” she said.

Nursing manager Randy Greene, who works in one of the hospital’s inpatient units, has seen first-hand the benefits of therapy dogs.

“Every day I do rounds and I have seen how they (therapy dogs) bring some calm to the lives of people facing pain and serious health issues,” said Greene. “The dogs help break down barriers for people who have shut down or (are) in anxiety after a diagnosis. And for some patients, therapy dogs may be the only visitor — outside of hospital staff — that they will see.”

Benson’s handler, volunteer April Kaylor, recalled one case involving a patient in a wheelchair.

“She started talking to him and her daughter ran out of the room crying — we were worried something bad had happened,” said Kaylor. “But she said her mother had stopped talking to people. She wouldn’t talk to anyone and this was the first time she had in some time. She felt it helped open up her up to talk to others.”

Patient Gerald C. Myers was scheduled to be discharged from the hospital after a stay for an undisclosed ailment. He said a therapy dog that regularly visited him — named Hope — made his stay more comfortable.

“These dogs are marvelous,” said Myers, 89, a retired CEO and chairman of American Motors Corp. “She would come in the morning for a visit and I would get a chance to pet her.”

“I have had dogs all my life and they are great company,” Myers said. “I don’t know what it is, but they just make you feel more at ease. It’s something about their nature, I guess.”

Cheryl Thrushman said that experience is shared at St. John Providence hospitals, where she helped organize a therapy dog program about a decade ago. The health system owns 10 dogs that work out of seven of its hospitals in five counties across southeast Michigan.

“The dogs all live with a host who is a hospital employee and brings the animal to the hospital every morning, where a trained handler takes over,” Thrushman said.

The dogs, all Labrador and golden retrievers, have been trained and certified by Paradise Dog Training in Fenton, she said. It is estimated the animals have have collectively had more than 130,000 “encounters” with patients, staff and visitors at the hospitals, she said.

Other therapeutic animals

Stephanie Perkins, program director for animal therapy at the 770-bed Tallahasse Memorial Hospital in Florida, said its program has been around for more than 20 years and has worked with hundreds of patients.

“We don’t just have dogs, we have cats, a parrot, a rabbit and a dwarf-sized horse, which visits rehabilitation centers,” said Perkins.

“(Dogs) were used in several capacities in schools, nursing homes and libraries,” she said. “But they began visiting the hospital in 2005. We have 174 volunteers, and 155 of them are working with animals.”

Dogs must be at least a year old before being considered for therapy duty and handlers have had to work with them for at least six months. The average therapy dog is about 6 years old.

“Studies show these visits lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular systems and actually help reduce pain in patients,” she said. “There is the emotional value, of course, to being visited by a therapy dog, which leads to relieving mental anxiety, less need for medications and reducing stress, pressure and anxiety.”

Perkins said staffers who “have had a bad or stressful day” also requests visits.

Patients in rehabilitation also find their recovery is aided by therapy dogs as they work on balance and mobility.

“Tossing a ball or making hand signals to a dog encourages them to work longer and harder,” Perkins said. “It’s more fun. It’s not rehab work. It becomes play. Patients that might be resistant to exercises sometimes seem to respond better to animals than staff.”

Not all dogs are appropriate for therapy work, she said. About one-third of the dogs considered go through early testing where they are screened out because of temperament or because they are easily distracted by sights and smells.

“There is no particular breed that makes it,” Perkins said. “We have pit bull mixes, Rotweillers, German shepherds, bulldogs … you name it.”

Perkins has seen some dramatic success stories, like a 14-year-old girl who had been involved in an ATV accident.

“She wasn’t walking or talking after 10 months of rehabilitation,” she said. “Two and a half years into recovery, she remained a sassy girl who said ‘no thanks’ to requests for her participation in certain exercises or programs.

“She had been a cat person but got a (therapy) dog and she fell in love with the dog,” Perkins said. “She began saying words like ‘kennel’ and ‘kiss’ and ‘sit’ in speech therapy classes. She was reading off three-by-five cards.

“Before long she progressed to speaking and walking every day,” Perkins said. “She had the dog and handler attend her high school graduation. She wants to be a baseball coach and, no doubt, she will be there someday.”

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