Baby is on a diet. It’s not that she’s grossly overweight, but she does have the shape of a cocktail sausage. She is a cinnamon-colored, short-haired dog with a foxy face, a personality like Miss Congeniality and a tail that curls up over her back almost into a double circle.
She is one of the new team of dogs that bring cheer and affection to patients in the Huntington Memorial Hospital in the Pet Assisted Therapy (PAT) program in Pasadena.
Baby is a pound puppy who was picked up on Skid Row suffering from malnutrition and pneumonia. She was bailed out of the pound by a young woman named Tracy Fairhurst, who nursed her to health and convinced her life could be fun, and then volunteered her at the hospital.
Dogs first joined the Huntington staff in 1983 in the rehabilitation unit. In 1988, golden retrievers and Labradors moved into the main acute care hospital.
There are now 15 volunteers whose 18 dogs spread their tail-wagging friendship among patients who wait for the visits as if the dogs were Santa’s helpers. They are. They bring pure love and gentleness to people in pain, in boredom, even despair.
One of the team is Ane Brusendorff, a tall, gentle Danish woman who has two dogs in the program. One is called Taus, short for Gustavius, a big-boned golden retriever with a noble head. He is the color of clotted cream, just the color of Brusendorff’s hair. Taus is 8 years old and in the program, too, is his 6-year-old sister, Toy. At home, there are five more goldens and Brusendorff walks them all at once in the rugged hills above Altadena.
Holli Pfau is the leader of the program. She has a degree in recreation therapy which she says is a cousin to occupational therapy. In the last six months, Pfau and her teammates found a need for smaller dogs as well as the goldens and labs, especially on the orthopedic unit and in pediatrics.
Baby is one of the small new dogs. During my tour with the team, Baby visited Don Gates, a gentleman from Maryland who had a troublesome shin injury. Tracy lifted Baby on to the bed, where she promptly rolled over on her back and did everything but point to the spot on her stomach where she wanted to be scratched. Don Gates obliged.
Another small dog on the team is a Cavalier King Charles spaniel who belongs to Sheila Siegel--or probably the other way around. He has a snow-white muzzle, round eyes like black grapes and long feathers on his legs. He looks as if he were wearing curly angora chaps. His name is Oreo.
Holli Pfau’s dog is named Nicole--Nikki to her many friends. She is a mahogany-colored golden retriever with a narrow, aristocratic head.
Nikki visited a young man named James Ellison who has spent a great deal of time in Huntington Memorial Hospital, so he has watched the dog program develop over the last two years. Nikki snuggled her soft muzzle in the curve of James’ neck and they made a perfect picture of mutual respect and affection.
The dogs and their owners are all volunteers, as is veterinarian Peter Lippincott. He takes care of the dogs’ health and sees that they are in top form before they start their shift. Every dog owner I talked to said that the dogs were eager to come to work. The dogs look forward to the time spent with their patients. Their behavior is impeccable. They are trained not to jump at sudden sounds or to make jerky movements.
After a session with these wonderful animals, I am in perfect agreement with veterinarian Leo K. Bustad, president emeritus of the Delta Society, a national organization that promotes relationships between people and animals. He wrote, “Our survival as a species depends on our ability to foster a boundless compassion for living things. A person or community is not healthy without nurturing contact with animals and nature.”
The Delta Society builds new partnerships with animals, nature and each other. Pfau and her crew attended the national Delta Society in Houston in October. The women from Huntington presented an hour and a half workshop. Pfau has written a Pet Assisted Therapy workbook that will circulate throughout the United States. She told me, “We feel the quality of life is important and the dogs are quality givers.”
During one patient-dog visit when I was there, three nurses walked quietly down the hall and looked in at the companions. Every nurse smiled and turned away with glistening eyes.
All the dogs are magnificent and have come together through word-of-mouth. Lois Sheppard and her yellow Labrador, Arlo, met Maggie Crawford, one of the original team and her golden Monte, while they were walking in Pasadena’s Victory Park. Next day, Sheppard and Arlo started training.
In spite of the magnificence of all the dogs, I noticed that most people, doctors, patients, nurses, staff, would compliment the big dogs, pet them and ask, “Oh, is Baby here today?” The poor little street urchin is now everybody’s fat and sassy heartthrob.
On Dec. 19, all the dogs will make a Christmas tour of the hospital, wearing the regular volunteer pink bandanas with laminated ID cards with their pictures and large red bow ties.
Merry Christmas to the PAT team who know what the real meaning of Christmas giving is.