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Paging Dr. Fido, Report to Recovery, Stat

Program's dogs can be a patient's best friend


Even at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills, where all rooms are private, patients get used to a parade of strangers entering their rooms. Henry Cole is far more welcome than the usual hospital personnel who barge in, intent on completing such errands as drawing blood or dispensing medication.

Henry is a 75-pound, 4-year-old golden retriever who visits patients every other week, a volunteer in the hospital's POOCH Program. His only goal is to be a friend.

POOCH stands for Pets Offer Ongoing Care and Healing, which sums up the program's mission. "So many patients have no visitors, or miss their own dogs," says volunteer coordinator Barbara Cowen, who started the program in the AIDS unit six years ago. "I thought dogs would bring some warmth and normalcy to an environment that can be lonely and sterile. The dogs help allay the anxiety patients waiting for a diagnosis feel, or help patients who are in pain."

So every other week, Henry and his owner, Adrienne Cole, put on their volunteer uniforms--hers is a pale turquoise smock, his, a matching bib--and spend several hours brightening the day of patients, their families and hospital staff. He is one of 35 dogs who volunteer, accompanied by owners who know the value of pet therapy, and are as gracious and friendly as their dogs.

"The situation is self-selecting," Cowen says. "Usually, the people who want to participate in something like POOCH are warm, caring, good listeners who are genuinely interested in the patients. There have been a few people who liked the idea of showing off their cute little dogs but didn't think about what interacting with sick people would be like."

Janey, another golden retriever, knows what it's like, as do Vyldie, a Welsh terrier; Maggie, a German shepherd; Smitty, a Tibetan terrier; Tucker, a Wheaton terrier; Sascha, a cocker spaniel; Toast, a German shepherd; Bubbles, a Chihuahua; Teddi, an Australian shepherd and Matt, a Great Pyrenees.

Cole is understandably proud of her pet and enjoys seeing him comfort, entertain and cheer up patients and their families. "When we go into ICU, he knows to be calm," she says. "He loves attention and will climb up on a patient's bed if they want him to."

Henry, in a way, is a four-legged icebreaker, a way for Cole to interact with patients. Though Henry happily receives the pats of a series of people in the sixth-floor lobby where friends and family wait to hear the results of operations, Cole and her handsome, immaculately groomed companion provide a welcome distraction.

"How old is he?"

"How much does he weigh?"

"What does he eat?"

"He loves people, doesn't he?"

"Did you train him for this?"

"Does he shed a lot?"

The questions are repeated by each new admirer, and Cole responds as if she'd never been asked before. She's particularly pleased to see him doing so well as a POOCH volunteer, because when he first applied for the job, he was rejected.

"I brought him to the hospital to meet Barbara, and he had never been on an elevator before," she explains. "The environment was intimidating. They invited me to come back several times and let him get accustomed to the hospital. Within weeks he'd adapted."

Every volunteer has a story about his pet's most moving contribution to a patient's recovery. Henry was welcomed into the room of a young man, a golden retriever owner himself, who had been in a coma since being injured in a car accident. The young man's father placed the boy's hand on Henry, and the patient opened his eyes.

Calvin, a 17-pound Cavalier King Charles spaniel, reports for duty every other Friday with his owner, Gloria Litz. She says, "One day we were doing our rounds, and I knocked on the door of a teenage boy who was in pretty bad shape and asked if he'd like a visit. He didn't, but I noticed that his mother had repeated my question in sign language, so I told her that Calvin is deaf. She communicated that to her son, and he changed his mind. His eyes lighted up and he said, 'Bring him in.' Calvin turned on the charm, and I could see the effect it had on the boy."

Prospective canine volunteers are screened by veterinarian John Young, director of the department of comparative medicine at Cedars. He examines the dogs and observes how they behave, with and without their owners.

"I want to see if a dog is willing to focus on a person other than its owner," he says. "We don't want one that would go into a room and ignore a patient. We had a dog who was a gem with its owner, but he growled at me. I'll take the dog for a walk, to expose them to all the noise and activity they're likely to encounter--IV poles and carts rolling by. I want to make sure they don't have separation anxiety. We don't anticipate the dog and the owner being separated at the hospital, but that's always a possibility. Dogs can't be trained to be therapy dogs. They have those personalities or they don't."

Every POOCH volunteer must be on a flea control program and be bathed within 24 hours of coming to the hospital. Before the dogs get their ID badges, two fecal analyses are done, and the process is repeated every six months to make sure that they don't have bacteria that could be infectious.

The dogs visit the rehabilitation department, where stroke and accident victims work to regain motor skills, the cardiac ICU and the AIDS unit.

"They don't go to infectious-disease wards," Young says, "and HIV is species specific, and is a blood-born pathogen, so there's no risk to the dog there. There is anecdotal evidence that pet therapy, especially in rehab, is beneficial. When you touch a dog, you smile. They don't demand anything, or judge you. No matter how infirm or sick you are, they're content to lie by your side."

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