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A Helping Paw: Trained Therapy Dogs Aid Cancer Patients

A Helping Paw: Trained Therapy Dogs Aid Cancer Patients

March 2011

Lexi trots down the hall of the Lurie Cancer Center's inpatient oncology unit at Prentice Women's Hospital and is greeted with smiles, cheers, and even a few tears. The anticipated visitors sense the excitement, but understand Lexi is there to do her job and she gets right to work visiting 54 year old cancer patient Leonard Pal. Lexi is not your typical visitor; she's a Golden Retriever bringing distraction and cheer to very sick patients. The visits are part of a new animal-assisted therapy program launched in conjunction with the Canine Therapy Corps in Chicago.

"Who wouldn't mind getting a visit by a beautiful red head," said Pal about the five year old Golden Retriever. Pal is being treated for colon cancer which has metastasized to his liver. He's in and out of the hospital undergoing tests and receiving medicine to manage his pain. "This is the highlight of my day; I was waiting for her all morning," added Pal as Lexi cozies up to his bedside.

The program began last summer with Lexi, Willow and Piper, the newest dog in the program, visiting cancer, palliative care and hospice patients. "We are excited to be able to provide a welcomed break in the day for patients, many of whom are in the hospital for long term care. Interacting with the dogs has a noticeable impact on their mood and enhances their well-being," said Patricia Murphy, RN, MSN, Director of Oncology Services at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Research suggests that visits with animals may improve patient outcomes, decrease length of hospital stay, help with confusion, depression and manage pain symptoms.

"It's never fun to be at the hospital. It's uncomfortable to have needles in your arm and scary to undergo tests, but when I see the dogs I forget about my treatment. They ease the burden of being in the hospital and really make a big difference in my day," said Pal.

If a patient is unable to receive a visit from the dogs because of infection control, open wounds or compromised immune systems, the dogs are trained to stand in the doorway and wave to the patient. "Anyone who has a pet knows the joy they bring to our lives. Sharing that joy is so rewarding," said Judith Jaffe, trained dog handler for Canine Therapy Corps and Willow's owner.

Lexi and Willow not only bring a smile to the faces of patients like Pal, but visitors and the hospital staff are always excited to see the pups. "The oncology unit can be very stressful for staff, families and the patients. The dogs bring great energy and happiness when they come to visit. It really brightens everyone's day," said Jessica Palis, RN, clinical coordinator at Northwestern Memorial.

(Last updated on June 21, 2013 )