All paws on deck
Since February 2009, the staff at Westfields Hospital has gained three more pairs of helping hands — and paws.
Every month, three devoted dogs and their handlers volunteer as part of the hospital's dog therapy program, which was launched by social worker and dog-lover Suzanne Ballantyne.
"The therapy program has been a wonderful asset to Westfields," Ballantyne said. "Our handlers and dogs are exceptional. They brighten the whole mood and atmosphere of the hospital."
Currently, Westfields is served by a 3-and-a-half-year-old Labrador retriever named Finnegan and two mixed breeds named Freddy and Gracie. The dogs greet patients, visitors and staff during their visits, serving as a welcome distraction to many patients and families and a comfort to those who are ill.
Although many dogs have friendly temperaments, Ballantyne said it takes a lot to become a therapy dog. The dogs must complete rigorous training at the handler's expense, ultimately being put to the test during a complex assessment of the dog's abilities. They are evaluated based on their behavior toward strangers, their ability to manage distraction and their temperament toward all populations, including children.
According to Finnegan's owner, Bob Molenda, only three out of 10 Labs pass the test due to their "squirrelly" nature. However, after 45 weeks of obedience training and an additional 12 weeks of therapy dog training, it was clear that Finnegan was the perfect dog for the job.
A fun-loving Lab with a gentle disposition, Finnegan is certified through Therapy Dogs International and has earned his first service badge, which he wears on his signature red bandana to signify his 50 completed hospital visits.
Because anything from cotton balls to syringes could be lying on a hospital floor, Molenda said one of the most important commands in a hospital setting is "leave it." During his certification test, Finnegan had to walk past three hamburgers on the floor to prove he wouldn't go after a fallen tray of food.
According to Ballantyne, therapy dogs must also have excellent responses to basic commands like "sit" and "stay." While the dogs' breed and age don't affect their eligibility for the program, they must be well groomed and in good health to meet the strict health policies at the hospital — and that's fine by Finnegan.
Further defying his breed's stereotype, the yellow Lab hates getting dirty and thoroughly enjoys his pre-hospital routine, which includes hair brushing and plenty of Wet Wipes. Although Finnegan didn't turn out to be the hunting dog he'd hoped for, Molenda is grateful for the doors dog therapy has opened.
"I've enjoyed it tremendously," Molenda said. "When you're retired, your circle of friends gets smaller. Because of this, mine is getting bigger."
With virtually no hospital experience, Molenda has learned a lot in his two years of service.
"I once spent a half hour with a man in his 30s who had been in the hospital for two weeks," Molenda said. "When we were finished, the man thanked me for being the first person to visit him that hadn't talked about his health."
Since then, Molenda has done his best to pursue other avenues of conversation with patients, taking their minds off their illnesses while Finnegan gives a reassuring wag of his tail. Whether they're strolling the halls, visiting patients in their rooms or scouting out the ladies — Finnegan is partial to them — the duo always leaves smiling faces in their wake.
In fact, Finnegan, Freddy and Gracie have become so beloved at Westfields that the hospital created trading cards for each of the three canines. Featuring the dog's name and picture on the front, and a short biography on the back, the trading cards are shared with patients and visitors as the dogs make their way down the halls.
"We've gotten to know our teams really well, and we call out to them as they walk through the hospital," Ballantyne said. "The best thing about dog therapy is that they're not poking you with needles or asking to run tests. They're just there to give you unconditional love."
For more information about Therapy Dogs International, call 973-252-9800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org