Parker's Work in Pet Therapy

I have long been a proponent of pet therapy. From 1970 to 1974 I was in the US Navy Hospital Corps, gaining experience in a variety of direct patient care settings. I returned to college in 1974. During the summer of 75 I worked at a nursing home in southwest Portland to gain experience in long term care. Occasionally I would take Chere, my beloved first golden retriever, to visit residents on my days off.

In 1981 I took a position in the Health Care Facilities Section of the Oregon State Health Division. One of my responsibilities was oversight of the rules governing health care facilities. I soon discovered that rules adopted in 1980 prohibited all pets in nursing facilities except for "tropical fish" or "similar sized pets" (OAR 333-23-781(7)).

Understanding the contribution pet therapy can make in health care, one of the first rule changes I initiated and filed (October 1984) established standards allowing pets in nursing homes. Those same standards, which allow resident pets and pet therapy, are in effect today (OAR 411-086-0340).

Shortly after retiring from the State of Oregon, I returned to the health care field by getting involved with pet therapy. In October 2007 my wife Chris, our daughter Jenn and I acquired our seventh golden retriever. In choosing Parker, we wanted a calm, confident, intelligent dog that would be easy to train, and who would make a good therapy dog.

In 2011 Jenn and I attended a Pet Partners class at the Oregon Humane Society. After some additional "field work" in shopping malls (with permission) and other public environments, Parker and I completed the Pet Partners evaluation process and Parker was approved and registered for therapy work in "complex environments."

Initially Parker worked at Kaiser Radiation Oncology Center, Kaiser Interstate Hospital, Portland, and in the "Read to the Dogs" program at Beaverton City Library. In December 2012 Parker began regular visits at Doernbecher Children's Hospital and Oregon Health Sciences University. In November 2013 Parker added regular visits to the new Kaiser Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro to his busy schedule.

In addition to hospital and occasional library visits, Parker visits preschools, elementary schools, and high schools. It is easy to tell that Parker enjoys the visits-- as he approaches one of his regular haunts, his enthusiasm is clear. His ears perk up, his tail wags enthusiastically, and his pace quickens. His posture tells me he is one happy fella as he approaches his therapy work!

Every visit Parker makes is memorable. One of many rewarding encounters was at Doernbecher, when upon entering the unit the nursing staff approached and asked us to visit a young girl. The 15 year old had been in the hospital for several days, but refused to communicate with staff. Upon introducing ourselves and asking permission, we entered her room. The girl was immediately taken with Parker. It was hard to believe she had been so silent, when she was so talkative with Parker. Upon returning to the hospital two weeks later, nursing staff excitedly exclaimed how pleased they were-- the once silent girl had been freely conversing ever since Parker's visit! That kind of interaction makes pet therapy so extremely rewarding. Parker and I never tire of hearing a patient say, "you made my day," or "that is the most I have seen my daughter smile since she has been in the hospital." When we hear those words, and it happens often, it really makes me so thankful to have the opportunity to provide pet therapy. Patients love telling us about their dog, or another pet, current or past, and of the joy pets bring into our lives.

When Parker provides animal assisted therapy, or AAT, he often does much more than provide a soft touch and a warm cuddle. Parker is a performer, having mastered many tricks. Often I will have Parker sit up like a rabbit, and exclaim, "He is a pretty silly dog. He thinks he is a bunny rabbit!" or "Parker is only half golden retriever. Do you know what the other half is? Bunny rabbit!" "He even jumps like a bunny rabbit," I explain as Parker leaps into the air following my hand signals. "But when I tell him he looks like a bunny rabbit, he really gets embarrassed!" And following subtle hand signals, Parker will sit and cover his eyes with his paw. Laughter helps the healing process.

When visiting one of the "school rooms" that children at Doernbecher attend to keep current on studies I often ask, "Does your teacher sometimes have to tell the other kids in your classroom to use their inside voice?" The question is normally responded to with vigorous nodding of heads. "Well, Parker knows how to use his inside voice." As I give him the hand signal, Parker will enthusiastically make barking motions without uttering a sound. "Now when you go back to your own school, you can tell your teacher you met a dog who knows to use his inside voice!"

The paw over the eyes "trick" is used for many situations. For example, if a child is frightened of a dog, I will use the trick to invoke empathy in the child, "Oh look, Parker is afraid," or "Parker is very bashful!" Sometimes that is all it takes to help break down the barrier of fear.

Often patients, child and adult, are in isolation, preventing most therapy animals from visiting. But for Parker, isolation is no barrier. Isolation can be tough on a patient, especially children. At Kaiser Westside Medical Center, when we performed a few tricks from the hallway for a Hispanic man in isolation, the man broke out in a big smile and laughed. "That's the first time I have seen him smile," exclaimed one of the nurses. People heal much faster when they have a positive attitude. AAT helps reduce health care costs and makes the environment more pleasant for both patients and staff.

During one session, hospital staff called me back and asked us to visit an elderly lady whose room I had just passed. The lady appeared to be sleeping, and I avoid disturbing patients who are asleep. After announcing ourselves, we went into the room together. I picked up the 61 pound dog so the lady, who was supine in the bed, could see and touch him. The nurse lifted the lady's hand and stroked Parker's head with it. It appeared the woman could neither speak nor move. Her eyes, which had appeared quite distant, came alive as she gazed at my golden retriever. The nurse asked, "Isn't this a beautiful dog?" While she never said a word, the patient clearly nodded her head and smiled. There was no doubt Parker reached the heart of someone whose apparent dementia surrounded her in fog. We remained for a few minutes, as she was clearly enjoying the visit. As we left the room, the lady appeared to quickly retreat to the world in which she now lived. The nurse explained "her family will have some important decisions to make later today." The nurse's decision to give that lady some AAT was crystal clear.

These stories are not unlike experiences we encounter during every visit. Converting tears to laughter, frowns to smiles, trepidation to relaxation, boredom to excitement, clouds of despair to visions of clarity-- that is what pet therapy is all about. Parker serves a real purpose in life.

Dan L. McFarling
Aloha, Oregon
3-2 2014