A special brand of medicine: A day in the life of a therapy dog

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On workdays, Daisy Pollock wakes up and takes her usual bath. She has her nails cleaned, her teeth and hair brushed, and then she slides into her blue uniform. Some days a local commercial in which she currently stars will play on the TV across the room.

This is the usual prep work to make sure she’s clean and ready to see patients at the VCU Medical Center and the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, where she routinely visits some of the facilities’ sickest patients.

Daisy has encountered more than 2,300 patients in her celebrated four years on the job and shows no signs of slowing down.

At work, she moves swiftly from room to room, patient to patient and admiring staff member to admiring staff member. Research has demonstrated that her presence twice a week at the hospitals reduces fear, anxiety and depression in patients and triggers positive effects on physiological patterns such as blood pressure and heart rate.

Without question, the yellow Labrador is a valued asset to the care team at VCU, no matter what species she happens to be.

A dog on call

Laurie Lyckholm, M.D., professor of hematology/oncology and palliative care in the VCU School of Medicine, works in the VCU Medical Center alongside Daisy. The Dogs on Call program, part of the VCU School of Medicine’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction (CHAI), includes 32 therapy dog teams that visit more than 2,000 patients and families per year.

Although Lyckholm can cite the numerous scientific findings associated with the positive medical effects of therapy dogs, she said, “I don't really need many studies to convince me that the dogs on call are powerful purveyors of positivity. I need only to look at the faces of our docs and nurses, therapists, chaplains and social workers to see the immediate effect.”

“For the patients, the effect I see is often even more dramatic – as many have their own dogs and cats they left at home and may be missing them terribly because they offer tremendous comfort, sympathy and company,” she said. “The patients often cry happy tears and embrace the dogs.”

Alan and Vera Pollock are Daisy’s owners, trainers and team members.

“It is really enjoyable to see her share her special brand of medicine,” said Alan Pollock as he prepared Daisy to leave the house recently for a day of rounds. “And all of the dogs on call are like that.”

That special brand of medicine, said Denice Ekey, CHAI program coordinator, ranges from the miraculous – once a patient on a neurology unit responded and moved for the first time since his arrival after being asked to pet one of the dogs on call – to the simply heartwarming – the introduction of a therapy dog into a tense family situation ended with laughter and shared memories of family dogs from years past.

“It’s hard to put it in words, but you know it when you see it,” said Ekey of the effect the dogs have on patients and staff alike. “And it’s been shown that for staff members five minutes with a dog is equal to 20 minutes of rest.”

These types of findings about the benefits of animals for patients and staff are essential to the CHAI mission of improving health and well-being through human-animal interaction.

Ekey describes CHAI’s functions as a circle with three main elements – research, education and programs – each of which relies on the others for success.

The center’s research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals ranging from the International Journal of Business Communication to the Journal of Mental Health Counseling. Its education component encompasses VCU School of Medicine electives, continuing education for professionals and community education.  Programs include pet loss support and Dogs on Call.

A selfless healer

Daisy and the other dogs on call are allowed into every area at VCU Medical Center except operating rooms and the cafeteria – the latter much to Daisy’s dismay, Alan Pollock said.

“I believe that a health system that allows pets to visit virtually everywhere and proudly promotes its Dogs on Call program is one that embraces the value of treating the whole person,” Lyckholm said.

The wide range of treatment areas puts the dogs in direct contact with all types of patients from brief visitors to the sickest of the sick. No matter the condition of the patient, they have that initial reaction of joy in common.

“We enjoy just seeing people smile,” Alan Pollock said. “Their demeanor changes when we go into the room, and of course they are hurting most likely – they may be lonely, tired, bored – and we walk in and we have the best view in the house at the end of a six-foot leash.”

And at the close of the day, he said, “the dogs aren’t asking for anything.”


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