Cold noses, warm hearts

Every Thursday, Maggie Crawford outfits her golden retriever, Kai, in a harness and a neckerchief adorned with four gold stars. After that come the name badges, which identify Kai as a dog with a mission. “ID#59773—Pet Assisted Therapy at Huntington,” one badge reads.

By the time the day is done, Crawford and Kai will have made their weekly rounds at Huntington Hospital, through the pediatric unit and the brain mapping department where patients’ seizures are tracked. They will have stopped by the medical records office to visit employees more than happy to ignore the filing long enough to sneak in a hug or a scratch behind the soft folds of Kai’s ears.

“When a dog walks in, the world becomes more normal,” said Crawford, who lives in Pasadena. “It brings a piece of the outside world into an otherwise sterile environment—the mood in the room totally changes.”

Kai is one of 35 therapy dogs who regularly visit patients, visitors and staff members at Huntington Hospital through the facility’s Pet Assisted Therapy program. Designed to cheer and comfort people in need of companionship, program volunteers visit nearly every department except the ER and maternity ward, says Crawford, who co-founded the group 24 years ago.

La Cañada resident Dawn Witte can personally attest to the amazing power of the program. Witte is working toward a bachelor’s in psychology and recently shadowed Crawford as part of a pet assisted therapy certification course.

“It is truly magical. There were three separate visits where either the nurse or parent told us that it was the first time the child had smiled the whole time they had been there,” Witte recalled. “Kai was so gentle and well-mannered it literally gave me goose bumps.”

While there is no way to accurately quantify the healing power of a paw touch or warm nuzzle, the smiles that light up the faces of patients and visitors graced by the canine companions seem to indicate that the program just works. According to Priscilla Gamb, director of Volunteering and Customer Service at Huntington, pet visits do a lot to relieve patient anxiety.

“It gives them a break from the stress of being in a hospital,” she said. “It can actually reduce pain levels, because it gives the patient something else to focus on besides themselves and their concerns.”

To say the program has been well vetted would be an understatement. When Crawford and a handful of pet-owning volunteers first initiated the idea, they spent a year working out the myriad details and clearances needed to bring dogs into a sterile hospital environment—infection control, patient privacy, animal certification and more. Once that was done, the group spent another year gathering information from patient surveys to see if the animal visits were, indeed, having a positive effect on their general well-being. The feedback was a resounding “yes,” said Crawford.

All would-be therapy dogs are certified through Washington-based Delta Society’s Pet Partners program, which sends experts to the hospital to evaluate an animal’s temperament, social nature and distractibility. Those who can’t resist typical doggie urges like jumping, licking or playing don’t make the cut. After that, handlers undergo the hospital’s six-week volunteer training as well as program’s own training, where they are assigned to one or more departments and shadowed by veteran volunteers like Crawford.

It’s a lot of work, but a simple smile from a patient makes it well worth the effort, Crawford said from the kitchen of her Pasadena home, where on the fridge a magnet with a goofy golden retriever face says it all:

“May I always be the kind of person my dog thinks I am,” it reads.

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