Print|Text Size: ||
Wonder Dogs

Chemical Reaction
Many of the new jobs for dogs center on tested and affirmed chemical reactions between people and canines. Leslie Horton, a registered nurse and the animal-assisted care coordinator in the rehabilitation center at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., has witnessed stunning examples of this chemistry: therapy dogs bringing people out of comas.

“We see about three or four a month,” she says.“We don’t know why—we don’t have funding to do the research. But it’s totally amazing.” Horton cautions that the dogs don’t wake every person from a coma, and that the patients had responded to at least noxious stimuli already, but she tells achingly lovely stories. Her favorite is of a young man who had been in a coma for two weeks.

“He was responding only to pain, but his therapist said, ‘We know he’s in there.’ It was just before Christmas. We put a dog on his bed. The dog leaned against him and started licking his hand. Usually patients don’t wake up all of a sudden, but he did. We said, ‘Your mom hasn’t left you for two weeks—you need to tell her hello,’ and he mouthed, ‘Hi,Mom.’”

Because the Inova facility allows animal assisted therapy in addition to therapy dog visits, the 22 teams of dogs and handlers under Horton’s care spend time in all four hospitals on campus, always with a physician’s order, and Horton lauds the Delta Society for providing appropriately trained teams for this work. In addition, the center has highly trained personal-assistance, or service, dogs.

“We demonstrate how service animals can help people accomplish activities in their daily lives,” she says, offering herself as an example. “Everyone knows that dogs help the deaf and blind. But I have MS. If I’m having a balance issue, my dog catches me. If I’m dragging my right leg,my dog helps propel me forward.” Horton has trained dogs to provide the same assistance— and more—for children with autism (who often walk on their toes) and people with other mobility issues. “For some autistic children, just having a dog in the environment is enough to help them concentrate better,” she says.

Communication Experts
Dr.Rolanda Maxim, a pediatrician in St. Louis who specializes in developmental behavioral health, agrees. She decided to try recommending dogs after noticing that her dog communicated better than some of the autistic children she assessed.

“He points to what he wants and looks at me,” she says.“I thought, ‘Wow. That’s great communication. What a good way to teach a child with autism to interact.’”

She’s seeing positive results with the children she treats. “I think they find common ground,” she says. “A dog is always ready to play and give positive feedback. Of course, a trained dog can do more, but I encourage all my patients’ parents to get a dog with good social skills for their child. It’s much better to treat a child with a dog than with medication. Even a regular dog interacts with a child so beautifully, I think there’s benefit.”

In Seattle, prosecuting attorney Ellen O’Neill-Stephens was moved to found Courthouse Dogs after she saw the positive effects her son’s service dog, Jeeter —a yellow Lab trained at CCI—had on children in juvenile court. The program, operated in partnership with Celeste Walsen,DVM, is dedicated to providing emotional support through facility dogs for people throughout the criminal justice system, from children to judges.“The analogy I like to use is the Dalmatian in the firehouse,” O’Neill-Stephens says. “But our facility dogs need to be highly trained. We have very high standards. We don’t want to lose this precious tool.”

Jeeter has accompanied a rape victim into the courtroom, relieved the stress of witnesses waiting to describe a murder, and helped a child testify about sexual abuse.“We had the dog between the child and the defense attorney, and the two were petting him during cross examination,” she recalls.

Sensing Trouble
Similarly, social worker Kim Atchley’s dog, Nigel, soothes the stressed children whom she sees in Child Protective Services. Nigel’s main job, though, has nothing to do with social work; he’s a medical alert dog: Atchley is a sleepwalker.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning freelance journalist who lives with her husband and three dogs in Northern California.