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Health + Wellness Wellness

4-Legged Doctors: How Therapy Dogs Can Be the Best Medicine

Published December 4, 2019 by

A simple pet is all it takes for the therapy dogs at Henry Ford to reduce patient stress.

By Carmen Nesbitt   

Photography by Derrick Martinez

Benson, a 7-year-old golden retriever and Hope, a 5-year-old black Labrador, greeted George Spelr by resting their heads on the side of his hospital bed. The man shook slightly as he reached down to pet them. Delighted, he pressed an electrolarynx against his throat and asked a hospital employee how he could get a dog for himself. “I only have one leg, and I speak like Darth Vader,” he jokes. “My wife is a very busy woman. I’d like a companion.” Though Benson and Hope might have enjoyed staying by Spelr’s side forever, as hospital-owned therapy dogs, they had a job to do.

Henry Ford Hospital therapy dog program

For patients and staff at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, dogs provide a treatment no two-legged doctor can: emotional “medicine.” Benson and Hope are part of a robust volunteer therapy dog program that began a decade ago with a black Labrador named Henry — Michigan’s first hospital-owned dog. When on duty, the dogs wear their uniform: a red vest that reads “Pet Me.” As they visit patient rooms and make the rounds in waiting areas, staff offices and emergency rooms, they are required to obey their handler, remain calm and, of course, receive lots of pets. 

Thanks to dedicated volunteers, the program has grown exponentially since the hospital opened in 2009. It is 100% donor funded, and due to a recent endowment from Sally and Bob Goldman, Henry Ford West Bloomfield is ramping up its doggy docket.

What Says Home More Than a Dog?

The hospital’s main corridor feels like a European village, with awnings, grand archways and decorative windows. Keith Fishman, director of the dog therapy program, explains the building was designed to promote wellness and create a home-like atmosphere. “What says wellness and home more than a dog?” he asks.

Henry Ford Hospital therapy dog program

 

The “homey” feeling dogs give humans has been well-researched. Studies show that dogs reduce stress, lower blood pressure and minimize feelings of loneliness, especially in hospital patients and people who work in high-stress environments. One study by University of California-Los Angeles researchers found that therapy dogs reduced anxiety in patients hospitalized with heart failure.

But Sally Goldman, a neurosurgery nurse at the hospital, and her husband, Bob Goldman, of Franklin, didn’t need science to see the dog therapy program had a profound impact — it just needed more funding. “My father was a donor,” says Bob, 67. “And, so, this has always been our hospital of choice since it opened. And we are very passionate about dogs. I don’t have any grandkids, but I have four grand-dogs.”

Henry Ford Hospital therapy dog program

Fishman trains and manages 28 volunteer therapy dogs and a team of 40 (human) volunteers. Benson and Hope work 8 a.m. to noon five days a week. When they aren’t pattering down hallways, volunteer dogs fill in the gaps. However, they aren’t “normal, everyday dogs,” Goldman says. These dogs are professionals.

Not Your Average Good Boy

Passing therapy dog school is no easy feat: Dogs undergo intensive training before becoming certified. Then, to volunteer at the hospital, they need Fishman’s approval. Fishman has worked with dogs for most of his life and has an uncanny connection with them. “Dogs have always been a passion of mine. For me, the logic of it is always readily apparent. I look at a dog, and I can read it.”

Henry Ford Hospital therapy dog program

When he evaluates a dog, he wants to see more than the ability to sit and stay. “Because of the amount of autonomy here, it’s very important that the dog is very controlled, that they can handle the unforeseen,” he says. “Hospitals have a lot of noises, have a lot of smells, have a lot of things going on. So, I’ve got to know that the dog and handler are going to be fine.” The dog and its owner must always show control in order to pass Fishman’s test. If they do, they are ready for the red vest.

A Day in the Life of a Therapy Dog

Walking through a hospital with a dog that says “Pet Me” is a stop-and-go process. Children will smile and point, some will charge across the room for a hug and staff often pause to greet the dog by name. Fishman says that handlers must let go of their ego, because they might have a great conversation with someone, but that person won’t remember them — they’ll remember the dog.

Benson and Hope even have their own trading cards and coloring books, which are fun mementos for patients like 9-year-old Devin Root. “We have quite the collection at home,” says Michelle Root, Devin’s mother. “It really brightens his day. He always asks if the dogs can stay the night with him.”

Henry Ford Hospital therapy dog program

Each dog follows a strict schedule, but handlers do their best to accommodate patients and staff who request dog visitations. “While we want the dogs in the hospital, and we want the people to enjoy the dogs, we got to make sure the dog is extremely well taken care of,” Fishman says. During the day, the dogs get plenty of breaks. They are brought to relaxation rooms where handlers will dim the lights and turn on music so they can rest. Though Benson and Hope are hospital-owned, they each live with a Henry Ford employee. On nights and weekends, they go home to their families.

As for payment, “they’re paid in smiles,” Fishman says.

All Paws on Deck

When a dog enters a room at Henry Ford, the spike in energy is palpable. The enthusiasm from staff, who help fund the program with voluntary paycheck deductions, and volunteers, who spend Thanksgivings and Christmases making rounds at the hospital, is a testament to the adoration for the program.

Henry Ford Hospital therapy dog program

Goldman has his sights set on becoming a certified handler and developing new funding opportunities. Therapy dogs are a “very expensive proposition,” especially those who have been trained for Henry Ford. According to Jack Grigg — owner of Paradise Dog Training in Fenton, which trains the therapy dogs — the average cost of a trained therapy dog is around $10,000. Goldman hopes to garner more donors to cover costs.

For now, the hospital will continue to enhance its program, starting with a third four-legged team member by December. The new recruit will work at Henry Ford Maplegrove Center, a nearby substance abuse treatment facility. “We’re very excited,” Goldman says. Judging by Benson and Hope’s wagging tails, they are too.

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