Caring canine teams boost spirits at AAMC

Wendi Winters
Contact Reporterwwinters@capgaznews.com
Two of AAMC's Caring Canines do a variety of funny tricks to cheer up patients. Watch the video.

An unlikely pair patrol the hallways of Anne Arundel Medical Center on Wednesday afternoons. They are 3-year-old Suzie and Kalli, who is 7.

The two are GoldenDoodles, a mix of golden retriever and poodle.

"They have the personality of golden retrievers but the independence, intelligence and agility of poodles," said George Benoit of Arnold, a semiretired electrical engineer who accompanied Kalli. "Plus, they don't shed."

They've been together since Kalli was 8 weeks old. Benoit and Kalli are one of about 30 Caring Canines teams sponsored by Dogwood Acres in Davidsonville.

Severna Park resident Katherine Tighe, a social worker, adopted Suzie when the pup was 9 weeks old and had been rejected from a guide dog program. Suzie and Tighe are members of the Anne Arundel County branch of People and Animals Who Serve, or PAWS.

The two dogs, specially trained and certified, are part of the hospital's Pet Therapy program.

The hospital has more than 25 volunteer pet therapy teams, each composed of a human volunteer and a pre-trained four-legged companion. In addition to PAWS and Caring Canines, the 25 teams also include members of Pets on Wheels, Fidos for Freedom and Pet Therapy International.

Benoit and Tighe and their pets have strolled hospital hallways together since 2015. They met while having their dogs certified through Pet Partners, a national organization that tests and registers therapy pets and their owners.

Working together, the foursome has developed a routine and understand what to do when they walk into a ward or a patient's room.

"We know when people love dogs," said Benoit.

Tighe finished his sentence: "Their eyes get soft."

Their "shift" is Wednesdays from noon to 4 p.m. — or whenever the dogs lose interest. If one of the dogs needs to answer a call of nature or just take a break, Tighe and Benoit take them to an outdoor patio for a quick romp.

When Benoit and Tighe are given a special request to visit a patient in AAMC's Heart Institute, where the average age of patients is 70, they usually knock on the patient's door and inquire if they want a visit with a dog.

When a patient is in an isolation room and cannot have visitors, the two stand at the door and encourage the dogs to do tricks, like a crawl race or bowing their heads to "pray."

Patients aren't the only ones receiving pet therapy.

"We spend time with the patients' visitors and the staff, who need therapy, too," Tighe said.

According to a 2013 statement from the American Heart Association, owning a pet, especially a dog, seems associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, although the exact link isn't clear.

Dr. Glenn N. Levine, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and chairman of the committee that wrote the statement after reviewing studies on the influence of pets, said: "It may be simply that healthier people are the ones that have pets, not that having a pet actually leads to or causes reduction in cardiovascular risk."

His committee found "people with dogs may engage in more physical activity because they walk them. In a study of more than 5,200 adults, dog owners engaged in more walking and physical activity than non-dog owners, and were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity."

Further, "Owning pets may be associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a lower incidence of obesity."

Pets could also have help the body's reaction to stress.

A hospital patient might not receive the same benefits as a pet owner, but the visit by the hospital's pet therapy teams certainly helps to lift a lot of gloomy moods.

Tighe, Benoit and the pooches have a set route at AAMC. They start in the physical therapy room for heart patients in the Belcher Building.

Suzi quickly clambers onto a moving treadmill as the staff encourages the patients: "If she can do it, you can do it."

Next stop is the Cardiac Rehabilitation area, followed by the Pediatric Ward, waiting rooms for general and cardiac surgery, the "joint camp" for patients recovering from knee and hip replacements, and special requests.

Often, the cardiac patients will talk about their own pets. Or, they'll cry and hug the animals. One woman, a patient for 3 ½ weeks, saved her lunch leftovers to feed the visiting pooches. They reminded her of her own dogs.

"Her greatest concern," Tighe said, "was to outlive her pets so she could care for them."

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