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Kaiser promotes canine healing

Furry friends with volunteer handlers provide comfort to patients


by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Volunteers with their friendly dogs have been training to boost the spirits of hospital patients, and the new Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro is tapping their skills. Four recently certified therapy dog teams include (left to right): Suzen Ferenz, with her dog, Daisy; Ann Coombs, with Leif; Trisha Ferris, with Sugar; and Joe Gallegos with Maya.  We’ve always known “dogs are a man’s best friend,” but it turns out dogs are pretty good buddies for doctors to have, too.

Because the comforting presence of a dog has been shown to be beneficial in the healing process, the new Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center is moving aggressively to ensure there are enough “therapy dogs” available to visit with patients recovering from surgeries or illnesses.

Since the new hospital in the Tanasbourne area of Hillsboro opened Aug. 6, dogs have played a significant role in the facility’s operations.

Kelli Houston, who oversees the therapy dogs program for the Westside Medical Center, said a visit with a furry, friendly dog can help to lift a patient’s spirits.

“Therapy dogs deliver comfort, care and compassion during a time of need to help improve their health,” said Houston. “Historically, this is an incredibly popular program. Members can actually request this as part of their patient plan.”

Not just any dog can be brought in to be with a patient, however. Therapy dogs go through a five-week training course with their handlers to ensure the experience is a good one for all concerned.

The training is sponsored by the Oregon Humane Society, with the classes held in the Humane Society’s Portland offices.

“Dogs bring physical or emotional benefits by bringing healing animal interaction,” said Lori Kirby, who has been with the Oregon Humane Society for about seven years and now helps train therapy teams. “The sessions take them away from their own problems, even if only for a moment.”

Houston said the Westside Medical Center expects to have a minimum of four dogs, with their volunteer owner-handlers, available to visit the medical center. A fifth dog is in training.

Trisha Ferris, one of the new handlers who gained her certification as a therapy dog handler this summer, said she has seen first-hand how beneficial a dog can be.

“My mom had cancer and was in chemo a lot,” Ferris said. “And the staff had dogs go there. It was amazing how much it brightened the patients’ day, when they’re having things done that are not so pleasant.”

Ferris, who trained with her golden retriever, Sugar, said she got involved because she wants to help people heal.

“Dogs are able to do things people can’t do. I’m not sure why that is,” said Ferris, who lives in Banks.

Another newly-certified handler will be a familiar name to many in the community: Joe Gallegos, the state representative for the Hillsboro-area district that includes the new Westside Medical Center.

Gallegos said he got involved because he loves dogs and the therapy dog program offered him another way to serve citizens within his district.

“I wanted to do some service projects, and I missed spending time with my own dog, Maya,” Gallegos said. “A lot of research shows dogs are really great for therapy and helping people, emotionally if not physically.”

Houston said Kaiser as an organization is a strong believer in the healing benefits of dogs. In fact, Kaiser offered $250 scholarships for the recent round of training in exchange for a two-year commitment to make their dogs available to patients at the Westside Medical Center.

“Kaiser picked up the cost, and we’re paying it back with a two-year obligation,” said Gallegos. “I think it’s a great program. I have to credit Kaiser. It’s really an aggressive program, and it opens the whole notion of how can we lower health care costs and get more of the community involved.”

“The training is for handlers and dogs; these are pet-partner teams,” said Kirby. “It’s not just about dogs, but about people and dogs. The handler and dog come to our class.”

The course is designed to help dogs be less stressed, teaches them to interact with people and other animals, and provides specific skills for meeting patients.

“I think the training is more for the handler than the dog,” joked Gallegos. “There is a certain protocol for visits.”

Ferris said the course she recently went through with her dog included training dogs how to greet other dogs; walking on a long leash; how they react around wheelchairs, whether loud noises rattle them; and how they react to a group of loud people.

“It’s all to make sure the dogs stay calm,” explained Ferris. “Even though you have a nice dog, you still have to make sure the experience is not overwhelming to them.”

Although Kaiser paid for the training and subsequent certification, Gallegos said he is not limited to Kaiser sites.

“The certification is nice, because now we can go to other facilities. We’re looking at Hillsboro and North Plains and some other senior facilities,” explained Gallegos.

Kirby said the Oregon Humane Society trains approximately 80 dog-and-handler teams a year, although not all 80 dogs pass the required course, and there are still more facilities out there wanting these visits than there are teams available.

After they are certified, dogs and their handlers are required to go through re-evaluation every two years.

Because there is much more involved than just putting the dog in the car and going to a medical facility, the dogs usually work just one day a week. Part of the reason for that is because Oregon Humane Society policies call for the dog to be bathed the day before a visit to a medical facility, as well as having its teeth brushed and ears cleaned.

“We call it a ‘spa day’ prior to the visit,” said Kirby.

Houston pointed out that the Westside Medical Center is looking for more volunteers for the therapy dog program.

“I’d really like to see between five and 10 dogs,” said Houston. “We’re actively seeking to bring more pet therapy teams on board.”



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