The New Rescue Dogs: In Hospitals and Research Centers across the Country, Man's Best Friend Is Showing a Stunning Ability to Heat Our Bodies and Soothe Our Souls

Article excerpt

The small shapes lay motionless, each cocooned in a protective sheath of wires and tubing as a team of nurses ministered to their needs. On this day, the pediatric intensive care unit at UCLA Medical Center was filled to capacity. Above the low hum of voices and the occasional squeak of a rubber shoe on polished floors floated the hypnotizing bleeps of monitoring equipment. A blue fluorescent light washed over everything and seemed to magnify the smallest detail--a few drops of blood here, a splash of yellow fluid there, the pale skin of a seriously ill child farther on. Parents hovered in corners, not wanting to get in the way, but fearful to leave.

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Into this sanctum stepped Laura Berton-Botfeld with her therapy dog--a 70-lb blond poodle named Apollo. The father of one of the patients spotted them and came quickly to her side. "Over here," he said, tugging on her arm. Laura and Apollo moved to the bed of his 10-year-old daughter, whom we'll call Sophia to protect her privacy. The delicate, wan figure under the sheets had bacterial meningitis--an inflammation of the brain that can be fatal. By the time Laura and Apollo arrived, the girl had been in a coma for seven days, and things were not looking good. Doctors had told the parents to prepare for the worst.

Sophia's dad propped his daughter up with pillows. Her unseeing eyes were wide open, a beautiful blue, framed by lank blond hair.

Normally, with a patient's permission, Laura has Apollo jump up on a chair beside the bed then onto the bed itself. He's trained to sit with his broad back to patients so they can stroke him and nestle their fingers in his fur. In this case, because Sophia was not conscious, Laura urged Apollo only to sit on the chair, a position that left him practically nose to nose with the patient. "It was the weirdest thing," says Laura. "Sophia's eyes seemed to just lock onto Apollo's, and the dog's gaze was so intense I thought he was going to kiss her--something therapy dogs are trained not to do."

Eventually, Laura moved Apollo to the foot of the bed where he continued to watch the patient intently with his intelligent, poodle eyes for a good 20 minutes. But Sophia was unresponsive, and eventually Laura and Apollo moved on to other patients. A few hours later as she sat in a parking lot waiting to pick her daughter up from school, Laura's phone rang. It was Jack Barton, director of UCLA's People Animal Connection (PAC), the volunteer organization responsible for Laura, Apollo, and 49 other therapy-dog teams at UCLA.

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"He said, 'Sophia just woke up,'" recalls Laura. "'And her first words were, "Where's Apollo?" How fast can you get back here?'"

In hospitals across the country, stories like Laura's are common. "I see miracles here every day," says Barton as he talks about the PAC program in the medical center's cafeteria. "People who just wake up. People who start eating. People who finally take their meds. People who are paralyzed and then suddenly move a couple of fingers to wave at a dog."

But if the healing associated with these dog visits is stunning, so are the sheer numbers of dogs and their humans now certified to provide Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), the technical term that refers to using trained dogs intentionally as a therapeutic healing tool. The Delta Society, a non-profit organization that evaluates and certifies teams across the U.S., has gone from 700 AAT teams to a staggering 10,000 plus in less than 20 years while Therapy Dogs International, a non-profit that also credentials dogs, reports that it has fielded 20,000 teams in the U.S. and Canada.

Although dogs have been used for therapeutic purposes around the globe for years, today, particularly in the U.S., their use is driven by mounting evidence that dogs truly can heal. One look at a therapy dog strolling into a hospital room and a patient's blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, and the corrosive hormones generated by stress that damage arteries and play a part in so many diseases and disorders plummet. …