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The Healing Power of Dogs: How Canines Bring Comfort to Henry Ford Patients

It’s an average day at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, and Benson is making his rounds.

While he sports a picture ID like other employees, there’s one big difference. Benson is a golden retriever, one of two hospital-owned therapy dogs and one of 30 caring canines that make up the hospital’s program. Dressed in red vests and badges, 4-year-old Benson and 10-year-old Henry, a black Labrador retriever, visit emergency and waiting rooms, lobbies and patient areas during the day. At night, they go home with a host employee who is a trained dog handler and responsible for caring for them when not at work.

Linda Smith, director of Volunteer and Lobby Services, has been working with Henry since 2009 and Benson since 2013. In January, the hospital will welcome Hope, a female black lab. Henry was the first hospital-owned dog in Michigan, says Smith, who adds that hospital-owned dogs offer benefits for both patients and staff. “The facility dogs are here longer hours and are able to visit more patients, staff and guests,” she explains. Combined with more than two dozen pet-owner therapy teams who also volunteer regularly, “It makes for wonderful coverage for patient needs,” she says. Henry and Benson even have their own trading cards, which are eagerly collected by younger patients.

Bringing smiles

Therapy dog Benson working hard to put a smile on patient's faces.
Hospital or volunteer-owned, the positive health results are the same. “There is well-documented evidence that pet therapy has extraordinary benefits,” says Smith. Therapy dogs provide a benefit that medicine and quality care cannot always address, she says. Dogs bring smiles to faces that are in pain, fearful or lonely. Patients hospitalized for long periods say therapy dogs make them feel more at home, especially those who have pets.

According to the Mayo Clinic, pet and animal-assisted therapy is a growing national trend and can reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a variety of health issues. Research shows that it can also decrease blood pressure, encourage social interaction, decrease stress and encourage stroke or traumatic brain injury patients to use their hands, take a walk and even speak. Visiting family members and friends also report feeling better too.

Patient stories

Smith says West Bloomfield’s results have been inspiring. “The stories our volunteers bring back from their rounds are just incredible,” she says. “We had a patient who was nonverbal for weeks until one of our dogs came up to his bedside. We had a patient who refused to talk about his frightening diagnosis with even his closest loved ones, but when a dog came in the room, he broke down and started telling the dog everything.”

Hospital staff also report feeling less stress too, she says. “We have had doctors drop to their knees in the middle of the hallway to get a little respite with these guys,” she says. “The dogs are the best listeners and do not judge. All that they want to do is love.”

What qualities make a good therapy dog? One who’s obedient, social and connects well with people, Smith says. Trainers also look for a calm, even temperament and one who is predictable and intuitive. Therapy team dogs that work with Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital are certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs and Therapy Dogs International. Labradors and golden retrievers are common but teams have also included springer spaniels, boxers, Great Pyrenees, German shepherds and mixed breeds.

The hospital hopes to create an endowment to assure the program’s future says Smith, who has seen the program’s results firsthand. “The dogs spark an immediate reaction of joy from people of all ages,” she says. “They provide unconditional love, calm, comfort and happiness everywhere they go.” And that’s good medicine, indeed.

Five Reasons a Pet Is Good for Your Health

Pets make us happy but did you know they also can make us healthier? Here’s how:

1. Consistent routine. The needs of a pet offer daily structure that can support mental health.
2. Companionship. Never too busy, pets offer consistent companionship and unconditional affection, stopping loneliness in its tracks.
3. Improved fitness. Pets encourage you to get moving, whether it’s taking a walk or hunting down that bag of cat food.
4. Reduced blood pressure and cholesterol. According to the CDC, owning pets can reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
5. Social connection. Pets make excellent conversation starters – you’re bound to run into a fellow cat lover in your building or make new friends while on a walk with Fido.

Categories: Get Healthy