BENSON SLOWLY WALKS through the main lobby of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. His employee badge hangs from his bright red service vest, which reads “Please Pet Me” on the back. A nurse sees Benson from a few yards away and yells his name. “My buddy upstairs would love to see you,” he says, giving Benson’s handler, John Erich, the room number.
Benson is one of two certified, facility-owned therapy dogs at the hospital. On this day, Benson is working alongside Audry, a volunteer therapy dog, and her owner, Karen Smith. Both are golden retrievers, and although they’re young and of a breed known for its high energy, these pooches are professionals. They’re friendly, too; as the writer speaks to Smith outside of a hospital room, Audry says hello by licking her hand.
The two dogs are a part of Henry Ford’s free pet therapy program that brings highly trained dogs into the rooms of inpatients. Upstairs, they meet 15-month-old Landon Porto, hospitalized for a virus, who excitedly kicks his legs upon seeing the two dogs. There’s a sense of relief and normalcy in an otherwise stressful situation. Next, they visit a hospice patient as part of a final request. This visit, only minutes later, is conducted in whispers behind a closed door.
Patients can request visits from the therapy dogs by dialing the front desk from their rooms. Still, most visits are impromptu at the suggestion of a doctor or nurse or simply a patient flagging down a dog. Visits typically last for a few minutes, where patients are allowed to pet, cuddle, play with the furry friends. Regular outpatients, such as children coming in for hearing tests, look forward to visits from the dogs, Erich says.
– EARLEXIA NORWOOD, FAMILY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN
The shift schedule for the dogs changes day by day depending on availability. For this shift, Benson and Audry work from 8 a.m. until about noon, making scheduled patient visits, greeting visitors in waiting rooms, and graciously receiving belly rubs from just about every nurse they pass.
Henry, a black Lab who also works at the hospital, became the first facility- owned therapy dog in Michigan when he was purchased in 2009 from Paradise Dog Training, which specializes in the training and placement of certified assistance, facility, and therapy dogs. In 2013, the hospital acquired Benson, also from PDT. Owners who wish to volunteer with their dogs must have them certified as well, and up-to-date on all immunizations. The number of volunteer handlers and dogs at any given time varies, but anyone can apply.
Throughout the week, Henry, Benson, and various other pooches parade the hallways with trained volunteers. And at the end of each day, the two pup employees return home to their permanent fosters, who are fulltime hospital staff members. There are nearly 200 beds in the hospital, making this a seven-day-a-week operation.
The Benefits of Pet Therapy
Dr. Earlexia Norwood, service chief of family medicine at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital and family medicine physician, cites various studies that point to the benefits of pet therapy. “Animals can be a benefit in decreasing your heart rate, helping you with impulses, (and) helping to decrease emotional stress,” she says.
Studies have also shown that interacting with animals such as dogs can increase levels of oxytocin, a hormone that increases happiness and can aid in healing and growth of new cells. These interactions increase oxytocin levels for dogs as well, making it a mutually beneficial experience. These types of programs are also popular at other local hospitals such as Beaumont and St. Joseph Mercy.
“(There are) multiple benefits,” says Dr. Ron Samarian, chief of psychiatry at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. “The bane of most people’s suffering is a sense of loneliness, and an experience with a pet, even for short visits, can relieve that loneliness. The loneliness itself can exacerbate things like hypertension and emotional stress.”
Samarian says he’s seen pet therapy becoming increasingly popular within the last 3 to 5 years because it’s effective and it’s “a very low-cost, high-yield therapy.”
Some therapy animals become permanent residents in the homes of the patients they serve. They’re called emotional support animals, and while ESAs can be cats, potbelly pigs, or basically any other species, a vast majority are dogs.
As defined by the Animal Legal and Historical Center, a project under Michigan State University’s College of Law, “An emotional support animal is not a pet. An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability.”
Similar to the therapy dogs seen at local hospitals, ESAs are different from traditional service animals, medically and legally. While service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for disabled individuals, such as leading a blind person or assisting someone in a wheelchair, ESAs provide more general emotional support. Unlike their facility-serving brethren, however, ESAs are by law not required to have any specific training or certifications.
ESAs are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act like service dogs, says Rebecca Wisch, associate editor for the Animal Legal and Historical Center. Instead, they are protected under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This allows ESAs in homes as a “reasonable accommodation” that can’t be denied by landlords. Use of the statute usually requires a tenant to provide a letter of recommendation from a health care professional.
These sorts of animals have been around since the ’80s and ’90s, Wisch says. The number of emotional support animals in the U.S. can be hard to pin down as there is no national registry agency. Federal law also doesn’t require registration or identification patches for the animals. But across the nation, doctors, airlines, landlords, and college campuses report an increasing number of ESA requests.
Norwood has been “prescribing” these animals for years with the use of ESA letters. Typically, patients prescribed an ESA by Norwood are still disabled under the guidelines of the ADA with conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and personality disorders.
For those without a disability, getting an ESA letter outside of a doctor’s office can be surprisingly easy. Websites offer online-based “treatment options” and supply ESA letters. One site boasts, “we make rental living pet friendly.” For a fee, websites will offer “therapy” sessions to users by phone or Skype. After a couple of sessions, and somewhere between $100-$200, users get a treatment recommendation letter for an ESA. This can take as long as two weeks, depending on the website, but usually users will get their letters within a few days.
This ease of access poses a number of legal questions and concerns for property owners and landlords. Wisch says the law center receives a similar number of questions from both ESA owners and concerned landlords about accommodation laws.
Despite the controversy, ESAs have proved invaluable to many. And even as medical technology advances at a faster pace than ever before, our canine companions, who have been at our sides for centuries, have shown that they have earned their place in health care as well.