Pet Therapy

Dogs deliver dose of medicine

By Zöe Mintz

My mom can’t get enough of Ringo. His wet nose, poofy tail, and contagious smile get her every time she returns home – especially after treatment. For the past two years, in her ongoing fight against breast cancer, my mother has endured a mélange of chemotherapy cocktails, scans, and biopsies. Throughout this journey, our standard poodle, Ringo, has kept her going. He greets her at the door, tail wagging, barking, and jumping to give her a lick or nose nudge – small gestures that make a big difference.

Ringo fills a gap that neither my mom’s medicine nor doctors nor family could provide. He plays off her personality: knowing when she needs a good distraction or just a doggie hug. He's her pet therapist. And he typically prescribes walks, cuddles, or car rides.

Not every patient has a pet to come home to. That's where Margrit Meyer steps in. For more than a decade she has run the pet therapy program out of the Montreal General Hospital. Known as the Animal Assisted Interactions Program, nine volunteers and 11 of their dogs visit patients in palliative care, oncology and neurology departments as well as staff in the intensive care unit. The program plans on expanding to the Glen Campus once the move is complete.

Unlike doctors, nurses, orderlies or even family members, dogs have no medical reason to enter a patient’s room. And that’s precisely why they are so effective at what they do, Meyer said. “It doesn’t matter how the patient looks, whether it’s bandages or how they are dressed,” Meyer says. “The dog comes and loves them.”

One of her strongest memories involved a patient who had just called for a nurse because he was in pain. But once he started petting one of the dogs, everything changed. “When the nurse arrived he told her, ‘I don’t need the medicine. I have the dog,’” Meyer says, recalling the moment.

All of the dogs in the program have been tested and trained before they enter the hospital. They must be at least two years old, in good health, and obedient. The four-legged volunteers spend two to three hours each week with patients. And they play off their intuition. “It’s an activity for dogs where the dog dictates how it goes,” Meyer says. “It’s amazing how the dog feels what is needed, how long they should lie still, animate patients or just be petted.”

It’s this wordless conversation between patients and pets that makes the relationships so unique – and why she believes in the program. “With the dog you don’t have to talk. You just get unconditional love,” Meyer said.

Spring 2015, Vol 7 N°2

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