"Therapy Dogs" Help Calm Human Patients
April 21, 2004

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Nathan Torres gave a wordless shout and rushed into the hall as fast as his little 18-month-old legs would carry him. His father, Luis Torres, smoothed out the kinks in the tube attaching Nathan to medical equipment, stretching it out to help the toddler reach for warm muzzles and furry backs. The therapy dogs had come to visit.

Nathan would be flying to Denver to see a specialist for his pulmonary hypertension. But, for that moment last month, the Albuquerque boy had a distraction from doctors and tests at the University of New Mexico's Children's Hospital.

His mother, Mayra Torres, crouching in the doorway to supervise, smiled at his enthusiasm. "He really likes it," she said.

The magic of animals as healers has gotten increasing attention over the years as pets have comforted people who need a little love, a little diversion, a little contact with normalcy in a world that has been turned upside down.

Interactions with animals can reduce people's blood pressure, pain and cholesterol; calm them; and boost their mood, according to studies.

Handlers with the Southwest Canine Corps of Volunteers said their outreach efforts do as much for them as for the patients. "It's highly rewarding to see someone who is really down and make them smile," said Celia Richardson, accompanied by Jake, her golden retriever.

After retiring as a teacher, Sherry Mangold said she started doing therapy with her rescued greyhound Freddy because "I missed the feeling of going home at night feeling as if I'd done something good."

Ask about special moments from their visits, and tears spring readily to the volunteers' eyes.

"The most meaningful thing happened at Presbyterian Hospital, in the intensive care unit," Mangold said.

A very ill woman who clearly loved animals -- pictures of her own pets and livestock were pasted on the walls -- could barely move, but put her finger through the bars alongside her bed as Freddy came near. After a short visit, the woman said through a device in her trachea, "beautiful" and "thank you."

Before she left two hours later, Mangold found out from a nurse that the patient had died. "It was wonderful to know she had an animal with her" in her final hours, Mangold said.

Susie Hunter can't show her Great Pyrenees, Stella, at shows because the dog is too big even by that giant breed's standards. "But therapy work is a lot more important than showing," she said.

"The staff needs it almost more than the patients," she added. "They are overworked and underpaid."

Robin Baros, a housekeeper with Children's Hospital, clasped her hands to her chest as she pronounced the dogs' visit to be "awesome."

"I see the joy in the kids. You see the kids smile. ... When I see the kids so happy, it makes me happy," she said.

Marcia McCann, a registered nurse, took a break from her job in interventional radiology to visit the dogs on the children's floor. "They're just a joy," she said. "It's therapy for me."

In addition to the measured effects such as slowing a person's heartbeat, an animal can have psychological and spiritual effects on a person, she said. "They reach a certain part of people," McCann said. "People are under such stress it seems an animal cuts through all that."

A young man, badly beaten, had been in intensive care for three weeks when Pat Broyles went to visit with her elkhound Jenny, who has since passed away. He was still in a coma. But Broyles put the dog's paws up on the side of the bed and placed the man's hand on Jenny's velvety ears.

"He started to smile. He started to rub her ears," Broyles said. "That was his first sign of any cognizance. His girlfriend was so excited. Nurses were looking through the window (into his room), beaming with excitement."

Broyles started the canine corps with a couple of other people 16 years ago. It has grown to 125 members, all of whom go through training with their dogs and are certified with Therapy Dogs Inc., she said.

They visit six or seven hospitals around Albuquerque, more than 19 nursing homes, and youths in juvenile detention.

For Cameron Waters, 10, who was at Children's Hospital for two weeks, the visits help ease the gap he feels in missing his own boxers, Charlie and Buddy.

"They're cute. They have so much energy," he said of the visiting dogs. They make him feel better, he said, "by giving me handshakes."

Janet Gabriel said she started doing therapy with her Brittany spaniel cross, Bonnie, in the wake of her experience as a two-time cancer survivor. "At Lovelace, to look at the love of the staff and how good they were to me ... I thought I wanted to give something back," she said.

"You walk into a hospital (with a therapy dog), and people start smiling. That's the most awesome thing," she said. "There have been so many incredible things happen."

Jane Nedom, now with her collie Justice, remembers a hospitalized child who was screaming, yelling, very distraught. She and another volunteer started rubbing the child's hands on their dogs.

"By the time we left, she was totally relaxed, with a smile on her face," Nedom said.

The stories go on. Paralyzed people whose fingers begin to scratch a dog's head. People who had been withdrawn, noncommunicative, who suddenly start talking to the dogs.

"The biggest reward," said Cindy Clark, who works with her Australian shepherd mix Spooky, "is when a crying child smiles, when a patient reaches out to a dog."