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Robert LeFevre: How a dog helped a little patient feel better

columns@modbee.comApril 8, 2014 

This is a story about a dog and a 2-year-old boy in the hospital.

As a certified therapy dog/handler team, we visit one of our area’s hospitals. We were making our rounds when the boy’s mother emerged from his hospital room pulling her son in one of the wagons available for pediatric patients. The child was snuggled in but looked uncomfortable. The side of his face and eye were swollen. His right forearm was secured on a splint so the IV would not be disrupted. His mom was pushing the IV pole with one arm and pulling the wagon with the other. Her child was anxious and occasionally crying. He had been restless and not sleeping well.

He spotted Baron, a Brittany spaniel, and said “doggy.” Baron came alongside the wagon, sniffed and got close so he could be touched. The child pushed himself up on his left arm to get closer. As Mom and I talked, we looked down and noticed that he had fallen asleep petting Baron.

“He has not relaxed like this since we got here,” she said.

The touch of a dog can be magic.

They have two dogs at home. Even as a 2-year-old, the little boy was really missing them. We visited for 15 minutes and as she turned to move down the hall, he awoke and wanted Baron to stay. So we walked alongside. Later we asked if he wanted Baron up in the wagon with him. A resounding, “Yes!”

Baron was not real excited but managed to gently jump on and snuggle his 50 pounds at the child’s feet.

As a retired physician, making therapy-dog rounds provides unbelievable satisfaction. One of the most frequent questions I am asked is, how did we get certified? Answer: “It’s easy.”

There are at least two national certifying organizations. One is Therapy Dogs International based in Flanders, N.J. They have more than 24,000 dogs and 22,000 handlers tested and registered. A second organization is Therapy Dog Inc. based in Cheyenne, Wyo. Both are easily accessible on the Web.

Therapy dogs are not service dogs. Service dogs work for a specific individual to whom they are dedicated. Therapy dogs are there to visit others. The dogs and their handlers need permission to enter a facility. Locally, only Kaiser Permanente has a formal program using therapy dogs in Modesto and Manteca. Doctors Hospital in Manteca accepts therapy handler/dog teams. Many of the local skilled nursing facilities welcome visiting dogs.

In addition, many libraries and schools have programs where kids read to dogs. Studies have shown kids improve their reading skills by being in these programs. Dogs don’t correct mistakes, but they help make reading fun.

Many people have dogs that could pass the qualifying tests. Whether retired or still working, volunteering with your dog will bring you joy and will help scared little kids smile. Your dog will also benefit from the activity. Become certified so you can start collecting stories of your own.

LeFevre is a retired doctor and community columnist; email columns@modbee.com.

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