Therapy dogs bring smiles, pain relief to Lawton hospital

Friday, February 8, 2019

LAWTON, Okla. (AP) — It has been said that laughter is the best medicine. And while most medical experts will prescribe actual medicine, there is a certain healing power that comes with a smile.

And few things make humans smile more than animals. And while not everyone is a “dog person,” the effects that therapy dogs have on patients — and staff — at Comanche County Memorial Hospital have been overwhelmingly positive.

Paws With Love, Inc., has been visiting local hospitals, schools, cancer centers, hospice care facilities and more for several years. All told, the program works with 22 entities in town. Among their most frequent stops is Comanche County Memorial, where the dogs visit patients multiple times a week to help alleviate pain, reduce anxiety and provide smiles, the Lawton Constitution reported.

Established in 2010, Paws With Love is a nonprofit organization formed through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Currently, Paws With Love has 28 working therapy dogs and 31 volunteers. Each of the dogs is the personallyowned pet of the handlers. Two to three times a week, several dogs and handlers go to CCMH to visit with patients.

Studies have shown that petting a dog or cat can release comforting and calming endorphins, lower blood pressure levels and even lower physical pain levels. Leann Legako, who works both as a tester/ observer with Paws With Love and as a pediatric nurse educator at the hospital, said that while it may seem far-fetched to some, the dogs do make a tangible difference.

“If there’s a patient who’s having trouble doing some physical therapy, maybe petting the dog can help. Sometimes we’re trying to get the patient to do some range-ofmotion exercises, we’ll have them brush the dog to work on range of motion,” Legako said.

Carol Cullins might have to use a wheelchair much of the time, but visits from the therapy dogs always brighten her mood, even if she was confused the first time they visited.

“The first time I saw them, I thought, ‘Why are there dogs here?’ But I really enjoy when they visit,” Cullins said. “I just think they’re so cute.”

But the benefits can be even more significant than that. Some of the handlers and nurses have seen the dogs achieve feats that previously seemed impossible. Sally Frazier and her German Shepherd, Radar, visited a man in an intensive care unit one day. The man had not been responsive, even with family members around. What happened next had to be seen to be believed.

“One of the kids said, ‘Papa, look at the dog,’” Frazier said. “And the man began to try to whistle. It was pretty cool to see.”

Sherri Robertson remembers an equally implausible moment involving Lucy, her Golden Retriever. A woman was recovering from a stroke and had not moved her right arm since the stroke. Robertson and Lucy paid the woman a visit.

“She reached out and pet Lucy, with her right hand,” Robertson said. “The therapist nearly started crying, I nearly started crying, it was incredible.”

Of course, a dog does not have to be a certified therapy dog to provide comfort and support. For those who do not own pets, watching videos of animals online often has to suffice. And while social media is overflowing with videos of adorable animals helping people, it is also inundated with unreliable and misleading information.

As the therapy dogs patrol the hallways of the hospital, people sometimes are hesitant to pet them when they see the vest. However, unlike service dogs, therapy dogs can be pet by strangers without it interrupting their work. Paws With Love is trying to make sure people understand the differences.

“There is still some confusion there and we’re trying to educate,” Legako said. “They are therapy dogs, not service dogs.”

The positive effects the dogs bring are not limited to the hospital’s patients. Robertson said she believes the staff gets an extra pep in their step when they get to see the dogs, as well. And the proof was in the pudding on a recent Thursday as five handlers walked around the hospital with their dogs for therapy visits. From the nursing department to engineering, the employees’ eyes and smiles lit up as the canines walked dutifully through the halls.

“To me, they make a huge difference, not just for the patients, but the staff,” Robertson said.

Each dog goes through eight weeks of obedience training before they can even begin their 8 weeks of therapy training. Because many of the dogs are still young, they still have a very playful side. Even a professional like Cinna, an Irish Setter who is an American Kennel Club Grand Champion, has to take a different path to the therapy area.

“There’s an outside area you can see through a window, and it’s his play area,” handler Susan Godlove said. “If he sees it, he thinks it’s play time.”

Therapy dogs are similar to K9 units in that each has its fun side, but each still has a job to do. As Paws With Love President Keri Brammer said, the dogs understand when it’s time to do work.

“The dogs know that when they put the vests on, it’s different than the show ring,” Brammer said. “It’s to work.”