Caring Canines make their medical rounds Visits help patients, keep dogs happy

August 15, 1993|By Jill L. Kubatko | Jill L. Kubatko,Contributing Writer

When Samantha, a German shepherd, sees Joan Bartholomew of Columbia put on her green T-shirt and get out a harness, she knows it's time for work.

In another part of the county, Gandalf and Hambleton, two English setters, watch expectantly as Shari Sternberger of Highland fills their backpacks with toys and puts on her green shirt.

With everything in order, the two women and their canine companions share a car ride to a hospital, where they will spend the next few hours visiting patients.

Mrs. Sternberger, her husband, Wayne, and Mrs. Bartholomew are co-founders of the National Capital Therapy Dogs or "Caring Canines,"part of a growing network of groups that use pets in a therapeutic setting.

The group of 35 dogs, each with its own handler, visits medical facilities in the Washington and Maryland area, helping with occupational and physical therapy.

Participating institutions include the National Rehabilitation 3f Hospital, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Johns Hopkins Hospital, Taylor Manor Hospital and Vantage House Retirement Community.

The idea is to use dogs as a soothing presence for patients in the often stressful and emotionally chilly hospital environment.

"Patients would rather play with a dog in therapy than sit with a therapist and fold towels as part of their therapy," Mrs. Bartholomew said.

And the dogs seem to look forward to their visits, Mrs. Sternberger said, adding, "If they can't go, they pout."

The three co-founders began Caring Canines four years ago after meeting at a pet obedience class. Soon, the trio began visiting nursing homes with pets in tow.

A year later, the three decided they wanted to do more with the dogs than simply have them perform tricks and have the residents pet them.

The local group joined Delta Society, a nationwide advocacy group for dogs that offers training in animal-assisted therapy. It set up a more formal structure, adding an advisory board of three veterinarians, a professional dog trainer, and two occupational and physical therapists.

"When we decided to become more professional, we were working at NIH. It became our first facility," said Mrs. Bartholomew, a retired elementary school teacher. "The staff had no idea what to do with the dogs. But once we started on a regular basis it clicked."

Dogs, ranging from a 5-pound Yorkshire terrier to a 75-pound German shepherd, participate in monthly scheduled visits with people who have eating disorders, depression, Alzheimer's disease and mental illnesses, as well as with adolescents at Taylor Manor psychiatric hospital.

The group also works with patients in oncology units and those who have had strokes, brain or spinal cord injuries, orthopedic conditions or other musculoskeletal ailments.

"The biggest change we see is mood changes," said Henri Zepp, who coordinates the pet therapy program at Taylor Manor Hospital. "The patients seem to relax when the dogs are here. [The handlers] do an excellent job and are very professional."

When visiting an institution, the team works with occupational and physical therapists, patients and families to improve the patient's mobility and self-esteem, Mrs. Bartholomew said.

One autistic young man who couldn't concentrate at Chinese checkers chose to play with one of the dogs. He surprised his nurse by playing ball with the dog and staying focused for nearly 40 minutes.

Another child who was afraid to have X-rays taken was helped by a dog who stayed outside the room with the girl until she was no longer frightened.

A young woman who had suffered a head injury was told the name of Mrs. Bartholomew's dog Samantha and worked until she could say it five minutes later. The young woman learned to throw a ball by playing with Samantha on subsequent visits.

"A lot of the people we volunteer with, who are dedicated, can tell you the same stories," Mrs. Sternberger said.

Training is extensive for the dog and the handler. Out of 32 applicants, said Mrs. Sternberger, two or three stick with it.

"After dealing with the paperwork, training, grooming and travel time to the hospitals, many opt not to do the work," she said.

Dogs are given a temperament test to provoke responses to common situations that a dog would encounter during a hospital visit -- the dropping of a tray, for example.

The dog's appearance also is evaluated, as well as its reaction to its owner, interaction with other dogs and reaction to the evaluator.

Those chosen are groomed meticulously before each hospital visit, shampooed and checked for fleas. Their nails are filed, teeth and gums brushed.

Handlers are prepared for a variety of situations, such as the persistent questions of an Alzheimer's patient and the possibility that a patient the handler has become familiar with may die.

"Both make up a team," Mrs. Bartholomew said. "Sometimes the dog works, but the person at the other end of the leash doesn't work out."

But when the relationship clicks, dog and handler get a great deal out of volunteering at the facilities.

"I can have a lousy day at work, have a headache and not want to goanywhere once I get home," Mrs. Sternberger said. "But once I get there, I know I will come home rejuvenated.

"We know [the dogs] have had a good visit," she added. "On the drive home they are sacked out, sleeping peacefully."

For information on how to volunteer with Caring Canines, call 997-2622 or the Columbia Volunteer Corps at 715-3163.

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