Usually, a hospital doesn’t bring a smile to a visitor’s face, but watch a canine member of the Healing Pups team enter a room and you’ll see everyone light up.
Launched in 2012 with two dogs, the Healing Pups program at Boston Medical Center provides in-hospital comfort to patients and families going through trauma and illness. Today, the program has grown to six dogs and hopes to be welcoming a seventh pup in the near future.
Of the six current dogs, two were raised to be therapy dogs through NEADS, an organization that provides independence to people who are deaf or have a disability through the use of canine assistance. The other four dogs are people’s pets who have passed the therapy dog international (TDI) test.
A special role with great responsibility, canine candidates must pass a thorough physical and behavioral evaluation by a veterinarian and a certified animal behaviorist before being accepted into the program. In addition, they must pass Healing Pups standards set by its program coordinators, requiring a dog to be reliably calm within the fast-paced hospital environment.
“The response to the dogs has been amazing and surpassed my expectations,” said Sheryl Katzanek, Director of Patient Advocacy and handler to Healing Pups dog, Riley, a black Labrador retriever. “The dogs seem to have attained ‘celebrity status’ at the hospital. Departments throughout BMC keep treats for the dogs and it’s difficult to walk across campus without being stopped.”
Each dog has a regularly assigned area of the hospital that they visit with requests ranging from patients who have been at BMC for a long time and who miss their dog at home, to those who need encouragement to get out of bed and start moving following surgery. There are even those calls where a Healing Pups dog visits an intended violence victim (stabbing, gunshot wound) as the patients appreciate the non-judgmental nature of the pups, Katzanek explained.
Showing just how much these dogs mean to patients at BMC, Healing Pups members have also been asked to be present for patients who are end-of-life, where a dog generally sits in a chair next to the bed, providing a comforting presence for the patient and family.
“Our goal is to be able to sustain the Healing Pups program into the future. Because of the emotional nature of the work, therapy dogs tend to burn out sooner than other types of service dogs,” said Katzanek. “We look forward to welcoming new dogs into the program which will allow current participants to start planning for retirement.”
As news travels of BMC’s unique program, the hospital has been approached about the possibility of participating in research studies involving the use of dogs as a complementary form of therapy. For those at BMC, it’s no surprise – dogs are called man’s best friend for a reason.
To schedule a visit with Healing Pups, call Patient Advocacy at 617-414-4970.