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Published on March 22, 2019

A cold nose at the bedside

a cold nose at the bedside

Patients at Cape Cod Hospital now have the option of being greeted at the bedside by a soft, furry face and wagging tail.

Cape Cod Healthcare has launched a pet therapy program, “Dogs on Call” or D.O.C’s of Cape Cod, where up to 10 experienced handler and therapy dog teams will be visiting inpatients at the Hyannis hospital twice a week.

“We have so many patients staying with us who are alone and isolated with no family and friends checking in on them,” said Deana Kayajan, executive director of patient and family experience. “If a visit from one of our therapy dogs can bring even just five minutes of comfort to their lives while they’re here with us, then we have succeeded.”

Kayajan noted that studies about pet therapy in hospitals have shown many benefits such as helping to build positive connections and stronger engagement with patients while also improving their overall experience of care.

Research shows the following benefits of pet therapy:

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces anxiety, unhappiness and pain
  • Decreases loneliness
  • Supports feelings of well-being

Setting up the D.O.C. program was a multidisciplinary process that involved patient services, volunteer services, inpatient nursing, security, infection prevention and changing the hospital’s animal policy. The dogs are different from service or emotional support animals because they have been trained and tested according to national standards.

“Both the dogs and their human handlers have gone through extensive training by a registered pet therapy organization,” Kayajan said. “All of the dogs are personal pets with calm dispositions and friendly, easy-going personalities. They also need a clean bill of health from a vet and when they come into the hospital, they will have been bathed within 24 hours.”

John and Marjorie McGraw

The idea for the program came after Cape Cod Healthcare patrons John and Marjorie McGraw heard about Orleans resident Leah Hyman from a mutual friend. For close to five years Hyman and her rescue greyhound Ruby were volunteers in the Caring Canines pet therapy program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Hyman and Marjorie McGraw went out to lunch to discuss the program and McGraw suggested that Hyman take the idea to Cape Cod Healthcare President and CEO Michael Lauf. Lauf gave the program the go-ahead and introduced Hyman to Kayajan.

“I researched similar programs in the Boston area, talking to the nurse at Mass General, for example, who created the program there more than 10 years ago, and, of course, my folks at Sloan Kettering,” said Hyman. “I wanted to model it after a program at a large city hospital.”

Hyman and Kayajan found a perfect fit for handler/therapy dog teams with the local organization Companion Animal Program (CAP) in Hyannis. CAPS has almost 100 certified teams that visit a number of area nursing homes and other local organizations. Eight of the most seasoned teams have undergone the Cape Cod Healthcare volunteer training to become official hospital volunteers and at least six more teams will be joining the program over the next few months. The dogs even have their own Cape Cod Healthcare photo IDs.

In the morning, on the days the handlers and therapy dogs come to the hospital, Hyman visits the floors that have been cleared for visitation. She surveys the patients to see who would like a therapy dog visit, she said. Those who want a visit fill out a consent form giving permission. Hyman then notifies the nurses on the floors know which patients want visits that afternoon.

“They’re just short visits, but I know from my own experience, especially working at a cancer hospital, that for those five minutes, no one is thinking about cancer,” she said. “The patient isn’t thinking about it, the family isn’t, the friends aren’t. Patients would ask about Ruby and want me to tell them about greyhounds. It gives them something else to talk about besides the surgery they had a few days ago, the complications of their illness, the nausea or not feeling well.”

Expanding the Program

Family members also find the dogs comforting, Hyman added.

“When one person is in the hospital a family is, too.”

Eventually Hyman would like to have baseball-style trading cards of the dogs like the Caring Companions at Sloan Kettering does. The cards will have the dog’s photo, information and likes and dislikes. They will give them to patients as a memento of the visit.

The pilot was launched at Cape Cod Hospital, but there are plans to expand to Falmouth Hospital in a few months. Expanding the program to other areas of the hospitals beyond in-patient floors is also being discussed.

Hyman and Kayajan expect D.O.C. to be very popular with both patients and staff. They visited a few floors of Cape Cod Hospital with some of the teams on this past Christmas Eve to give them a tour. The nurses were glad to see the dogs and patients poked their heads out of their rooms to watch, even though they weren’t allowed a visit yet.

“We are really very fortunate that we have leadership that puts tremendous support and value for our patients at the forefront,” Kayajan said.

Learn more about the "Dogs on Call" pet therapy program today.