Therapy Dogs Lift Patient Spirits

“You’re a good little fella,” says Frank to the milky white lap dog before him. Snow is a girl, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “You stay right here in my lap and I’ll talk to ya and pet ya,” he reassures her, before turning to her companion, Cyprus. “You’re a big doggie!” he remarks on the Greyhound mix’s size.

Snow and Cyprus are ProMedica Goerlich Center’s resident canine companions, offering comfort and support to the center’s patients. Located on the campus of ProMedica Flower Hospital, Goerlich Center provides skilled nursing care to dementia patients in a community-like setting. Patients experience expert dementia-specific physical, occupational, and speech therapy techniques to help them maintain a quality of life. Part of that quality comes in the form of a friendly face.

frank-and-cyprus-no-stocking“Let me see that smile,” Frank says to Cyprus, now standing at attention on his recliner. Frank and his wife Mary often enjoy the company of the doggie duo, as do the other residents.

Down the hall, Gerri is already clamoring for the dogs. She recounts tales of growing up, always finding herself in the possession of a dog– whether her family wanted one or not. “I just found them and took them home,” she smiled, pausing to pet the top of Snow’s head.

“It’s reminiscent for them because some of them had pets when they were younger and raising families, and it’s bringing back those memories for them,” says Tara O’Rourke, Administrator at the Goerlich Center. Research suggests a positive link between exposure to animals and health, which makes this brand of therapy a helpful tool for the center’s caregivers. O’Rourke says the interaction has a calming and therapeutic effect on her patients, and allows them to sit quietly and pet the animals, rather than be bothered with certain interactions that could prove stressful for dementia patients.

While either dog takes their job seriously, you can’t really call their routine “work.” Like any good friend, Cyprus and Snow are there to listen, provide comfort and make the residents’ world a little brighter.

“They’re just funny. We dress them up, they have Halloween costumes, and they have coats. Snow has dresses she wears sometimes. It’s just comic relief,” says O’Rourke. Cyprus has also been known to play the piano on occasion. There’s little rhyme or reason to where he places his paws, but the residents seem to love it just the same.

Cyprus Finds a Home

Cyprus began his training as a service dog through Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence, a program of The Ability Center of Greater Toledo, which works to support individuals with disabilities. ADAI originally trained Cyprus as a service dog, but the organization decided the dog was better suited to therapy work. The 3-year-old greyhound collie mix came to Goerlich a little less than two years ago, and has been a hit ever since.

“Gerri really bonded with Cyprus. He’ll hang out with her a lot, and sometimes when he’s tired, he’ll jump in bed with her,” says O’Rourke. Cyprus might make a good bedside buddy, but he still remembers many things from his training. He can help residents with simple tasks like removing a sock, and even knows how to sit himself under a table and away from the wheels of a wheelchair.

“I like you because you take care of us,” cooed another resident to Cyprus, who put his big, floppy feet on her lap. O’Rourke explains the dogs have a special connection with each patient, serving as extended family members to supplement other sources of affection. But sometimes Cyprus intrinsically knows the other ways in which he’s needed.

“When families come to visit their loved ones at their end of life, Cyprus has picked up on that, checking up on them and sitting by them for support. We weren’t sure how he would react, but his first experience with a family going through a hard time was just six months after he started here, and he was all over it. That family was really impressed,” says O’Rourke.

Then Along Came Snow

“We really wanted a lap dog too,” says O’Rourke. “People react differently to a large dog than to a small dog.” Their wish was granted when a nurse’s dog had puppies. Snow, the female Maltise/Poodle/Shih Tzu mix, began her stint as little sister to Cyprus about eight months ago. Rather than staying at the Center, the dogs go home with each of their adoptive parents, who are both nurses.

snow-and-gerri“Cyprus started off living at the center, and then living with different staff members, but he needed a break and a stable routine, so he went to live with just one staff member,” says O’Rourke. Snow also lives with one person.

Staff members work with Snow on basic commands and obedience throughout the day, but splitting time between affection-giver and dog-in-training can be taxing. Both she and Cyprus spend 10-hour days, four days each week at the Center, but each has a quiet area with a bed and food bowls.

But it doesn’t stay quiet for long. After a quick nap, Snow and her pal Cyprus are back to patrolling the halls, begging for belly rubs and a pat of the head. Luckily for them, says O’Rourke, they have lots of fans.

“Everybody touches Cyprus’ ears. Everybody wants to rub Snow’s belly.”

Snow gets a quick tousle of her white curls before racing down the hall to her next friend in need.

“When she goes, she goes!” says Gerri with a laugh.