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HOLIDAY STORIES
 






 

 

Bright, Beautiful and Eager to Please
Therapy dogs bring merriment and good cheer to patients—and everyone else along the way


There’s nothing like a visit from a dog, especially during the holidays, to make a hospital seem more like home. Annabelle, with Daisha Tunstall in the Children’s Center.

Annabelle is no Beyonce. She’s never had to think about maintaining her mane. But even though the reception she receives is not quite that of a celebrity, there are days involving her fans when things can get a little crazy. Today is proving to be one of them.

“Oh, sooo cute!”

By the time Annabelle, a 9-year-old beagle, confidently trots into the adolescent medical surgical unit at the Children’s Center, she has already been surrounded by a group of cooing women dressed in scrubs and lab coats. Annabelle’s owner, Mark Cohen, holds on to her leash as they lean in to say hello. He’s seen all this before. “We always have people stopping us in the hallways on the way to our visits.”

Along with his wife, Michelle, Mark has been bringing Annabelle to visit Hopkins patients for more than a year. The Cohens are one of five teams from National Capital Therapy Dogs, a group that promotes the use of animals to help sick and disabled people, who visit Hopkins Hospital with dogs in tow. Usually, the work is as simple as cheering up patients who have had better days, like 15-year-old Daisha Tunstall.

Dressed in pajama bottoms, T-shirt and diamond earrings, Daisha is in the hospital because of her lupus. She has two Lhasa apsos at home, but after spending six months in the hospital, her dogs seem very far away.

“I like all animals, but my dogs are my favorite,” says Daisha.

Cohen lays out a white towel on the bed, and Annabelle promptly makes herself comfortable at Daisha’s feet. There’s no rough and tumble here; pet therapy visits are highly regulated. Annabelle is visually inspected before each visit to make sure she’s groomed.

Jan Jaskulski, an occupational therapy supervisor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation who helped pave the way for the Hopkins program, says she had to first allay unease about infections and liability before management would make the program official in June 2005.

“We addressed those concerns by agreeing to use teams certified by the Delta Society,” Jaskulski says. Delta promotes stringent criteria in certifying therapy dogs. Jaskulski herself was an evaluator for the organization. “We would pinch the dogs between the toes hard and do things that would typically elicit a response but didn’t in these dogs.”

Annabelle is just such a dog. After a few squeezes and cuddles, Daisha begins combing the dog’s brown, black and white coat with a soft brush. Annabelle gazes off to the middle distance. It’s an expression that would make a Zen master proud.

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Studies have shown that petting or stroking animals can help lower tension and blood pressure. Rose Seelenbinder, a certified Child Life specialist who works with families to help decrease stress associated with hospital stays, thinks it has something to do with how people relate to dogs.

“People associate dogs with doing tricks, playing fetch, curling up in your lap—really kind of sensing what you’re going through,” says Seelenbinder.

Currently, therapy dogs pay calls in the Children’s Center, comprehensive inpatient rehabilitation (CIR) on Hal-sted 3, and four adult psychiatry units. There are plans to expand the program, however, and volunteers are wanted. You can train and certify your dog through National Capital Therapy Dogs or the Delta Society.

Dogs seeking further information can get in touch with Annabelle.

“How do you feel about visiting, Annabelle?” asks Cohen at the end of the evening. “Do we jump for joy?”

With that, Annabelle rockets skyward like a kangaroo. Not bad for a dog with minimal ground clearance.

—Sarah Richards


Info: If your dog would like to volunteer in Hopkins’ animal-assisted activities and therapy program, contact National Capital Therapy Dogs, 301-585-6283, www.nctdinc.org, or the Delta Society, www.deltasociety.org.

 

 

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