Obici recruiting new ‘staff’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 23, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

WANTED: Dogs – Must be friendly, affectionate, willing to be nuzzled, rubbed and hugged by complete strangers. Prefer fast tail-waggers. Pay is minimal, a pat on the head or a Milk-Bone at best. Neither breed nor size matters.

The pooches being recruited by Obici Hospital will become charter members of hospital’s newest healthcare team, the Kanine Kandy Stripers.

Email newsletter signup

In January, the hospital will offer a six-week training class for pups and their people interested in volunteering for the new animal-assisted therapy program. An informational meeting is being held at Obici on Dec. 2.

Buddy Hayes, a Chesapeake recreational therapist who will be teaching the class with her collie, Duncan, says many qualities of a good therapy dog come as second nature to the animal.

&uot;A good therapy dog instinctively knows what to do,&uot; Hayes said, scratching Duncan’s ears.

&uot;The ideal dog is outgoing, friendly and loves to be around people,. He also has to have the innate ability to know when someone wants to be left alone.&uot;

Breeds of dogs reputed not to be as friendly as others – which she believes is a myth anyway – are welcome in her classroom, Hayes said.

&uot;I’ve watched all kinds of breeds and varieties of dogs become great animal therapy dogs,&uot; she said. &uot;It doesn’t matter what is on the outside. It’s the inside that counts.

&uot;And you can’t be a breedist.&uot;

To be tested and certified by Therapy Dogs International, a dog must be at least 1 year old. The dogs going into the Obici class with should have basic obedience training.

Much of the hospital’s course will include teaching the four-footed critters to maneuver safely around wheelchairs, IV poles, crutches, and other medical equipment. The animals will also be evaluated on how well they work around distractions, including other dogs, unusual noises and the people and odors of a hospital environment.

At the end of the class, an outside evaluator will test the dogs to determine if they meet all certification criteria. No dogs are allowed in the hospital without passing the TDI exam.

After passing the class, the handlers and the pooches will visit patients interested in canine company.

The dogs aren’t the only ones who will be screened, said Pam Lowney, an Obici spokeswoman. The pooches’ owners will go through the same application process and orientation class as other hospital volunteers.

Although the training class is free, participants will have to pay $35 for their insurance with Therapy Dogs International and buy the vests their dogs will wear while &uot;on-duty&uot; at the hospital.

Before starting the course, dogs will have to get an overall physical from the veterinarian. They will also have to be bathed and groomed before every visit to the hospital.

Animal-assisted therapy at Obici will help the hospital carry out its holistic approach to help patients heal physically, mentally and emotionally, said Lydia Dunkailo, the Obici recreation therapist charged with overseeing the program’s implementation.

A nuzzle from a four-legged therapist has proven time and again to be beneficial to a patient’s health, said Hayes.

&uot;It’s been proven that animal-assisted therapy helps lower blood pressure and pulse rates, decrease loneliness and helps people develop social skills,&uot; said Hayes, who has used animal therapy since for more than a decade.

&uot;It helps patients get better faster. It gives them something to look forward to each day.&uot;

Once the first training class is finished, Dunkailo is hopeful the inaugural class of trained handlers and dogs will be ready to meet patients by March.

No patients or employee will be exposed to the therapy dogs unless they want to be, Dunkailo said.

&uot;We will not push these dogs on anyone,&uot; she stressed. &uot;If someone doesn’t want a dog to come in, all he has to do is say so. If a patient opts not to see a dog one day, that’s fine.&uot;

Also, the dogs will not go around anyone with allergies or autoimmune deficiencies.