Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue.
By Lisa Cesarano
At MidHudson Regional Hospital in Poughkeepsie, an exceptional patient experience provided by caring staff is hardly a surprise. Perhaps more surprising is that certain care-team members make their rounds on four legs.
A member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth), MidHudson Regional Hospital has a vibrant pet-therapy program that engages and comforts patients as they recover. Pet therapy programs are also offered at Westchester Medical Center, the flagship of WMCHealth in Valhalla, as well as Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Valhalla and HealthAlliance Hospitals in Kingston.
The term “pet therapy” includes animal- assisted therapy and other activities to help people recover from, or better cope with, health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental-health disorders. Additionally, animal-assisted therapy has been shown to significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue.
Jacqueline Forbes, Manager of Integrated Guest Services at MidHudson Regional Hospital, oversees volunteer activity, including the pet-therapy program. “I feel that the dogs help the patients improve socially and emotionally. Sometimes the therapy dog may be a patient’s only visitor, and being near a fuzzy little animal just puts a smile on your face.”
MidHudson Regional Hospital’s therapy dogs are trained via its partner, The Good Dog Foundation. Founded in 1998, Good Dog’s mission is to ease human suffering and promote recovery from trauma and stress using animal-assisted therapy services provided through professionally trained and supervised volunteer teams. These volunteer teams each consist of a human handler and therapy dog. Good Dog provides training and certification to dogs who meet certain minimum training criteria.
Learn more about two of the certified volunteer teams who have made a difference in the lives of hundreds of patients at MidHudson Regional Hospital.
John and Wilbur
Wilbur, a French bulldog, started his service in 2013. When he was young, his owner, John Todoroff, of Poughkeepsie, had taken him to an agility training facility for dogs in Middletown. “I wanted to give him some enrichment,” says Todoroff. “He’s an active little boy.” Wilbur was not especially enthusiastic about the obstacle class, but when, at the suggestion of the instructor, he began therapy-dog training, “he loved it.”
After a review of basic obedience skills, the major part of the training was to get Wilbur and his eight classmates accustomed to the unfamiliar sights, sounds and situations they might encounter in a hospital setting, such as wheelchairs and mechanized beds. “Wilbur was kind of scared of crutches, but we worked on that,” recalls Todoroff.
Once the seven-week program was complete, Todoroff reached out to local hospitals and connected with MidHudson Regional Hospital. After completing orientation, Wilbur and Todoroff have been providing comfort and companionship to recovering patients ever since.
A retired IBM engineer, Todoroff lives in Poughkeepsie with his wife, Becky, Wilbur and Wilbur’s “sister” Pebbles, also a French bulldog. He says they typically visit patients in the evening, when patients are back from testing. On several occasions, nurses on duty will suggest that they visit a patient who is unable to communicate. “Wilbur is small enough to pick up and is generally good at getting people talking,” says Todoroff. “He loves people.”
Ava: A Lifetime of Service
“I’ve always had dogs,” explains Judith Clemente, a retired special-needs teacher/supervisor who lives in the town of Poughkeepsie. “My retired husband and I weren’t going to adopt a dog, because we wanted to be free to travel. I got my dog fix by volunteering at the Dutchess County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DCSPCA).”
One day, in 2005, Clemente had a premonition as she was driving to the DCSPCA. “I thought about what kind of dog I would adopt, and a schnauzer came to mind. When I got to the shelter, there she was. Four-month-old Ava was home with us in two days.”
Having volunteered at a hospital when she was 14, Clemente says, “Therapy with a dog was a no-brainer.” Ava received basic training from another DCSPCA volunteer. Then she was evaluated and received training via The Good Dog Foundation. In April 2008, she graduated from its program as a certified therapy dog. “Ava was sweet, though hyper,” Clemente recalls. “We worked hard with her, and she succeeded.”
Ava’s service included therapy in special-needs settings — such as the Martha Lawrence School, a MidHudson Regional Hospital Early Education Center — often with children on the autism spectrum. She’d do tricks for treats with children, and their interaction would encourage children to speak and even write about their experiences with her.
Once, when Clemente and Ava were visiting hospital pediatrics, there was an infant who needed testing done on an empty stomach. Desperate to be breastfed, the baby cried whenever she looked at her mother. Ava came to the rescue! As soon as Ava and the baby started to make eye contact, Ava calmed her down when no one else could.
Ava passed away in July, at age 13. Says Clemente: “Ava gave us a great life, and we did the same for her.”
Forbes always encourages volunteer applicants to get involved with the pet-therapy program, both human and canine. “Volunteering in general is a great way to give back to the community. We have some volunteers who have been doing this more than 40 years,” she notes.
Still, Forbes admits there’s something particularly special about the hospital’s contingent of furry volunteers. “The dogs always came in to say hello, and I joke to myself: Why can’t humans be as nice?”
Pet Therapy Programs & Services at WMCHealth
Westchester Medical Center & Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital: 914.493.7850
**Applicants must be certified through the Good Dog Foundation**
MidHudson Regional Hospital 845.431.8130
HealthAlliance Hospitals 845.331.3131 x 2761
To explore volunteer opportunities at MidHudson Regional Hospital, visit www.midhudsonregional.org/volunteer.
Photos by John Halpern