All Paws on Deck to Encourage Healing

Ellen Morrow with Elbee
Ellen Morrow with Elbee

Therapists at the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA (RNPH) are getting excellent results with some innovative techniques — sitting, shaking hands, rolling over and allowing patients to scratch their bellies.

Such methods come easily to these therapists, since they are dogs — part of the UCLA People-Animal Connection, or PAC. Working as a team with their volunteer human handlers, therapy dogs brighten the lives of children, adolescents, adults and geriatric patients every day of the week at RNPH. “Patients light up when the dog comes in,” says Robbie Harris, a recreational therapist who works with children and adolescents. “Their attitude, mood and behavior all improve.”

The 70 PAC therapy teams have undergone extensive training to become registered with Pet Partners, a national pet therapy organization. Teams take part in several orientations at UCLA to make sure the dogs can stay calm in hectic hospital situations, with teams that work at RNPH receiving even more screening. “The dogs must be a good fit for the specific patient population, and handlers have to be alert,” says Erin Rice, director of PAC.

Charley and Elbee are goldendoodles who visit with children, adolescents and geriatric patients along with their handler, Ellen Morrow. The dogs often do tricks, and the kids learn how to give commands. “It makes kids feel empowered when the dog responds,” Morrow says. She has seen many moving interactions between dogs and patients, including one with a teenage boy who was so withdrawn he wouldn’t come into the group therapy room. A few visits later, he was hugging Elbee and even whispered, “I love you.”

Improved mood is a hallmark of PAC team visits, and recreational therapists work side-by-side with occupational therapists to make sure all the patients have an opportunity to take part in the 10- to 20-minute sessions. Children and adolescents who have been withdrawn, or even aggressive, become cooperative when the dog enters the room. “One minute they’re depressed, and the next they’re smiling and interacting,” Harris says.

These positive responses are backed up by research. Studies show that animal therapy decreases anxiety, stress and pain, and also lowers blood pressure and heart rate. UCLA has been using PAC to help patients since 1994, and Rice often gets calls from other institutions for advice on setting up their own programs.

While the UCLA PAC program is nationally recognized, the therapy dogs’ focus is close to home. “The dogs know when they are working and they have a strong sense of purpose,” Morrow says. “They are miracle workers on leashes.”

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