Boston Hospital Uses Four-Legged Friends for Therapy

The fourth floor of the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital is generally designated to patients recovering from strokes, but further down the hall from the nurses’ stations and patients’ recovery rooms is the hospital’s recreation room. The room has puzzles, a radio, board games, a foosball table — and a dog.

Conch, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, has been coming to Spaulding twice a week for the past three years to participate in the hospital’s pet therapy program. He is one of three “regulars.”

While other Boston-area hospitals have visiting pet therapy programs, Spaulding’s is a permanent fixture.

“Other hospitals don’t have this type of program. The hospital staff here can bring their dogs for the day, for therapeutic and certified treatments,” said Sarah Criz, 26, a leader of the hospital’s therapeutic recreation department.

When Criz came to work at Spaulding two years ago, the program had already been in place about six years.

“I thought it would be great to have more, on weekends and evenings,” said Criz, who then recruited more staff to bring their dogs, and contacted community pet therapy organizations.

Pet therapy is steadily becoming a more recognized form of treatment for people suffering from physical impairments. According to Criz, therapists at Spaulding use the dogs not only as a component of a patient’s physical therapy, but also as a reward for a good therapy session.

“I have a patient who has a raspy voice as a result of an injury. Instead of speech therapy and working on noises, something we might do with the dog is have the dog sit down the hall and have the patient call the dog,” Criz explained, with Conch watching attentively by her side.

“Petting a dog is an action a therapist might be trying to recreate with cones, but then you have a dog like Conch you can brush. The patient doesn’t view this as therapy and will do it over and over and not mind,” explained Criz.

Not every dog is eligible for pet therapy. General licensing guidelines require that the dog be over a year old, healthy, and well trained. As part of its test, a therapy dog must show he would not eat anything off the floor or lick people. He must also demonstrate that he can deal with elevators, stairs, and noisy wheelchairs, according to Criz.

“A good therapy dog is accepting, calm, directable, responsive, initiates contact, and when the room is empty you don’t even know he’s here,” said Criz.

While any breed of dog is eligible for certification, Labradors, mutts, shepherds, poodles, Golden retrievers, and terriers are the breeds most common for therapy.

Spaulding has three regular therapy dogs. Each has a sign with its name, photo, and two facts that gets posted outside the recreation room when the dog is in. On weekends, an outside volunteer group visits the hospital with its own dogs and handlers.

At Spaulding, therapists are allowed to sign a therapy dog out of the recreation center to visit a patient on another floor, and often to give the dog exercise.

What people find surprising, according to Criz, is that patients are allowed to bring their own dogs to the hospital for a visit.

“We basically feel that the separation of a pet and owner is powerful,” said Criz, who mentioned that patients often come to rehabilitation hospitals from general hospitals, and most stays were unplanned to begin with.

“We encourage people to bring their dogs from home for visitation purposes because it has great value to both parties,” she stated.

Therapeutic recreation is an umbrella service, so Criz’s center does not receive money from insurance companies for its work.

“We may work off of grants, or a floor might do a fundraiser for general services. The owners of the dogs provide the treats and toys,” she said.

“Therapeutic recreation in general is a field that thrives on the intrinsic reward of giving. Our motives can’t be money,” she added.

“Having the dogs in our workplace adds to the whole concept of bringing people smiles and creating sessions that aren’t so clinical. They’re a great tool in therapy,” explained Criz.

“They’re alive and they love you.”