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Pet therapists bring wagging tails and smiles to cancer center

Pet therapists bring smiles to cancer patients at Carroll Hospital in Westminster

The morning sun was streaming through the large windows of Carroll Hospital's Kahlert Cancer Center on Oct. 5 , as Shiloh, a 7-year-old yellow lab made her rounds. Going from chair to chair in the chemotherapy infusion area, offering her head to be petted, or nuzzling a hand, where Shiloh went the change in the patients was often striking.

"You just see people's faces light up as they come in, especially the ones that have met Shiloh before," said Pam Miller, Shiloh's owner and handler. The pair are part of K-Pets, a pet therapy organization based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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"I often liken it to with children. They have a favorite stuffed animal and when they are upset about something they like to go and cuddle that stuffed animal, and that's pretty much what it is for dogs when they visit with adults," Miller said. "They become kids again and they just want to hug and pet and stroke the dog."

K-Pets dogs and handlers first began visiting the non-cancer treatment related areas of Carroll Hospital two years ago, according to hospital Patient Representative Heather Shilts, but the positive patient feedback led to the dogs' first visits to the cancer center in February.

"We were taking it slow at first, just three days a week," Shilts said. "Now we're up to five days a week … one visit in the morning on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, one afternoon visit on Mondays and one afternoon on Tuesdays."

Many of the regular patients have come to expect the K-Pets visits, according to Shilts, and even to know and anticipate visits from their favorite animal. With some chemotherapy treatments keeping patients at the cancer center from four to eight hours, it's a welcome change of pace.

"When a dog comes up, you see their faces light up; they are really excited," Shilts said. "You see some patients that have animals at home, and they love their animals so having a sense of normalcy in the cancer center and in the hospital — it just kind of breaks up the visit and lightens the mood."

That is certainly the case for Debbie Smith, a Hampstead resident and the proud owner of a Pomeranian named Bayley. Smith was receiving the first infusion of her third round of chemotherapy in the past three years as Shiloh came through the cancer center on Oct. 5, and afterward, she had a big smile on her face.

"I'm an animal lover so if I can get my hands on a dog, that's perfect," Smith said, and then, with a laugh, added, "I would give money to an animal rescue before I would give money to cancer research. I love dogs."

Smith's first bout with cancer came on without warning three years ago, when she went to the hospital for what she thought was a gastrointestinal problem.

"[I] was diagnosed with stage III … anal cancer that went into the rectum and spread throughout different areas so it became stage III right away," she said. "We got all that resolved and I was cancer free for about 15 months and it came back in the liver and up in my clavicle area, in the lymph node."

Then, while in the midst of battling her own cancer, Smith's husband was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

"We literally had to take turns on who was going to be sick from the chemo on what week so that we could alternate who was getting their treatment and who was going to be down," she said. "His cancer was a lot worse than mine.

Smith's husband passed away in August and she believes the stress of his passing may have been a factor in her cancer returning for a third time, and yet as she sat in the infusion room of the cancer center, she was talkative and upbeat. She credits her faith in God, and her own canine companion, with helping her to stay positive.

"When I get home and just see those little black eyes waiting on the couch to watch my car come up the road and pull in the driveway … my whole day changes," Smith said. "I've told my dog I can't live without him."

It appears to be a two-way street, this connection between humans in need and therapy animals, according to Miller.

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"We were in a school one day in the office and a little girl was in there crying and I was signing in and realizing that [Shiloh] was tugging on me. She needed to go over and see that little girl and just put her head in her lap and make her stop crying," Miller said. "It was just instinctive; for dogs that are around this kind of work, the more they are around it, the more they pick up on it."

Kate Mahoney, of Finksburg, is a recreational therapist at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville and has seen the affect of animals on patients first-hand, especially among Alzheimer's and dementia patients.

"It's amazing what they can remember and what they cannot. They can't remember their name or where they are, often, but they can remember everything about pets that they've had," Mahoney said. "They remember when they were born and raised and had a dog or cat as a friend … For some reason they can remember that and how it made them feel, how they responded. It was unconditional love that you get back from [pets]."

Mahoney was in the cancer center Oct. 5 getting an infusion for her fourth round of chemotherapy for the chronic lymphocytic leukemia — a cancer of the cells in the bone marrow that become a type of white blood cell — that she has been battling. It has been a very interesting experience, she said, being on the other side of things.

"From a therapist's perspective, being the patient is much different than being the therapist. Having an animal come … visit you, it puts things into a totally different perspective," she said. "I think my attitude and the way I approach my patients has totally changed. I think I am more empathetic. More supportive, definitely."

Therapy dogs like Shiloh may have a lot more in common with therapists like Mahoney than people might think, according to Miller. While Shiloh loves to work, it does seem to tax her in some fashion, as if giving of herself in an emotional setting is tiring, and requires some follow-up self-care.

"She will get in the car and lay down and go to sleep and just zonk out," Miller said. "It really is tiring for them — just like a human therapist."

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