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Therapy Dogs

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Patients Undergoing Treatment at NIH Clinical Center

Kerry (middle), a patient, is with the therapy dog team of Jeanette Golden (left) and Tucker the dog. Holly Parker (right), Recreation Therapist.
Photo Courtesy of Ernie Branson, NIH

"Therapy dogs make a powerful connection with patients, giving them unconditional love," says Holly Parker, a recreational therapist at the NIH Clinical Center in the Rehabilitation Medicine Department. "The emotional and physical comfort they provide is unlike any other."

A self-described "huge animal lover," she coordinates 14 teams of trained and certified volunteers and their dogs who come once each week to the Clinical Center under an exclusive arrangement with National Capital Therapy Dogs (NCTD).

Three of the Clinical Center's therapy dog teams: Front left is Jeanette Golden and her dog Tucker; front right is Dr. Lisa Portnoy and her dog, Juno; back left is Nandini Murthy and her (partially obscured) dog, Lincoln. Accompanying them, at right rear, is Holly Parker.
Photo Courtesy of Ernie Branson, NIH

The Clinical Center veterinarian, Lisa G. Portnoy, DVM, heads the separate Animal Care Program, which functions to oversee the humane care and use of research animals in the Clinical Center. The program is accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) International. "The visits provide patients with a sense of normalcy, an hour in which their illness is not the focus of attention," she says. "Everyone benefits: the patients, the Clinical Center staff, the volunteer-owners, and their dogs."

Portnoy should know. She and her friendly beagle, Juno, are trusted animal-assisted therapy volunteers. Accompanied by Parker or other Clinical Center recreational therapists, the therapy dog teams visit the hospital for one hour each week. They typically see several patients during that time—both adult and pediatric patients with cancer, rare immune and genetic disorders, mental health challenges, and other conditions.

Kerry (center), from North Carolina, is a patient at the NIH Clinical Center. The therapy dog team of Jeanette Golden (left) with dog, Tucker, and Holly Parker (right), Recreation Therapist, are walking with Kerry in the Clinical Center.
Photo Courtesy of Ernie Branson, NIH

According to Parker, they try to match the dogs' temperaments to the patients' therapy needs. With high-energy pediatric behavior health patients, for example, retrievers work best because they chase balls and respond to commands. Small, quiet, curl-up dogs suit intensive care patients.

In Parker's experience, patients make progress in their treatment because of the dogs. For example, surgery patients will say, "I'm going to walk the dog. They're focused on that, not their discomfort."

"The dogs seem to recognize they can help," Parker says. "They know they're on the job and they get to please their owners and interact with other dogs, too. But visits are typically very intense, and the dogs are ready for a treat and a nap at the end of the hour visit."

Jon, from South Carolina, is a patient at the Clinical Center. The therapy dog's name is Lincoln.
Photo Courtesy of Ernie Branson, NIH

The teams—owners and dogs together—must pass obedience training and specialized therapy dog training to qualify as Animal Care program volunteers. The breed and gender of dog isn't important. What matters is innate personality and how well the volunteer and dog work together as a team.

"It's not easy to volunteer at NIH because of the security requirements," notes Parker. "It takes a special person to be in a hospital. Some of them have been sick or had illness in the family. They understand their dogs and want to share them, and many share their second dogs with us."

Brooke (middle), age 10, from New Jersey and a patient at the NIH Clinical Center, plays with therapy dog Juno. At right is Lisa G. Portnoy, DVM, Animal Program Director at the Clinical Center. At left is Holly Parker, Recreation Therapist and coordinator of the Animal-Assisted Therapy Program.
Photo Courtesy of Ernie Branson, NIH

Patient Brooke with Juno, who is playing the game "Find It," searching for treats.
Photo Courtesy of Ernie Branson, NIH

Summer 2015 Issue: Volume 10 Number 2 Page 25-27