Pet therapy brings creature comfort to Melrose-Wakefield Hospital

Melrose Free Press

Dec 3, 2011

By Jessica Sacco

There may be a new type of medicine out there, and it’s known as man’s best friend.

Standing at about a foot tall, covered in long, fluffy, golden hair is Cooper, a 2-and-a half-year-old terrier mix that visits Melrose-Wakefield Hospital every week
as part of a new pet therapy program.

The hospital works with the Pets and People Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1985 that brings pet-assisted therapy to patients in facilities such as nursing homes, halfway houses and hospitals in eastern Massachusetts.

According to Jodi Dwyer, a medical social worker for Hallmark Health, studies have shown that pet therapy can decrease anxiety and blood pressure in patients along with improving their mood.

“Overall it’s a morale builder,” she said. “[When Cooper is here] families come out of their rooms, nurses come over [and] it’s nice to be able to walk down the hall and see everyone’s smiling faces.”

Dwyer began developing an animal-assisted therapy program for Melrose-Wakefield Hospital last fall, after hearing about its success at other hospitals in the area.

Cooper and his owner, Annette Bush, a teacher at Wilmington Middle School, got involved with Pets and People in September after Bush learned about the organization at a dog festival in Somerville.

“I’ve always wanted to do some volunteer work,” she said. “And I love animals, so this was a perfect match.”

Before the duo became official volunteers with Pets and People, an experienced dog trainer from the foundation screened Cooper to see if he would be suitable for the program (including looking at health certificates and testing overall friendliness and ability to interact with others). Bush shadowed an experienced volunteer to get an idea of what the program entails.

Cooper is also trained in basic obedience skills and has a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certificate, which the American Kennel Club awards to dogs for good manners and behavior after a 10-step test.

“Most therapy organizations want you to have [a CGC certificate] because not every dog can pass it,” said Bush.

Thursday, Dec. 8, will mark Cooper’s fifth visit to the fifth floor of the hospital. Once there, he and his owner stay for about an hour and visit with three to five patients.

Last week, Alfred Martello saw Cooper walking down the hallway and asked if the dog could spend time with his wife, Claire Martello, a Melrose resident who was a patient at the time of Cooper’s visit. 

Cooper quickly made himself comfortable, hopping up next to Claire Martello and resting while she petted him and chatted with Bush.

“I think he’s adorable,” said Claire Martello.

The couple’s son, Vincent Martello, said he thinks pet therapy is a great way to liven up everyone’s day in the hospital and is something his mother definitely enjoyed.

“She loves it,” he said. “Look at her, she’s got the dog on the bed and she doesn’t even like dogs,” he joked while pointing to his mother and Cooper.

Dorothy Halloran, from Malden, met with Cooper for the second time last week. Cooper sat in a chair next to Halloran’s bed, excitedly barking at his company.
Those occasional barks are Halloran’s favorite part about his visit — she considers the noise as an example of his happiness.

“He likes to do marvelous things,” she said. “Cooper is the greatest animal God put on earth other than a human being. If I could have [a dog] that’s the baby I would have.”

After a visit with Cooper, patients fill out a survey, indicating whether they felt relaxed and comforted by Cooper and if they would recommend the experience to others.

So far, Dwyer said the program has received positive responses from those who participated. Feedback will be given to the hospital administration to show the effectiveness of the program and the need for it to continue.

“There is plenty of research out there showing pet therapy works but it’s nice to do it on a smaller level in our community to see the impact it can have on our patients,” said Dwyer.

Patients are not the only ones who enjoy Cooper’s visits, as the staff looks forward to Thursday evening every week, according to Nicole Bates, a clinical leader for medical 5 (floor five).

“For nurses on the floor, this profession is very stressful and [seeing Cooper] relieves [that] stress,” said Bates, a Melrose resident.

Even if they are busy working, Bates said the staff members congregate around Cooper to pet and talk to him for a few moments.

“We don’t stop for too many things so that’s a special moment in the day,” Bates said.

Bush said that she and Cooper will to continue volunteering, as they both enjoy the experience.

“[Cooper] is getting more and more comfortable,” she said. “Every time we come his tail is wagging and he’s looking at people. Hopefully [the program] will get popular enough that they’ll want another dog.”

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