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Submitted by: Marilyn L. Daniels, Manager|Library Services, Coordinator|Pet Therapy, Excela Health Latrobe Hospital, Latrobe, PA
In November 2014, as an adjunct to my role as manager of Library Services for Excela Health, a three-hospital health system located in Westmoreland County in western PA, I assumed responsibility for Excela’s pet therapy services. As an animal lover from an early age but a one-person department, I was thrilled yet daunted by this new role for a service initiated through Volunteer Services as part of Excela’s approach to the patient experience.
Thinking this was the time for some old-fashioned technology, I started making phone calls, learning Excela had five active pet therapy volunteers with five dogs—a Brussels griffon, a German short-haired pointer, two Shetland sheepdogs (”Shelties”), and a West Highland terrier (”Westie”). From my past experience, I have learned that repeat volunteers are motivated by several factors—factors reinforced, in part, by a 2014 survey I located on “The Able Altruist” website reported by Janna Finch (http://able-altruist.softwareadvice.com/what-motivates-people-to-become-repeat-volunteers-0614/. The three I expected would most likely play a key role for pet therapy volunteers were:
- schedule that suits the volunteer’s availability
- proof that the volunteer’s work is valuable and valued
- interaction with the department/service staff and with other volunteers
For those reasons, I spent the first two months getting to know my existing volunteers and their dogs. I determined what was and was not working for each volunteer, made necessary adjustments and rounded with each team to see first-hand the impact their interactions with patients, visitors and staff were having.
The librarian in me proved useful when I reviewed the existing policy, locating a 2008 article (since updated in March 2015) from the American Journal of Infection Control titled “Guidelines for animal-assisted interventions in health care facilities” as well as other information that I could use for comparison. Needless to say, as one with no previous pet therapy experience, I learned a lot!!!
By early 2015, I was ready to start expanding the program by contacting several local training facilities that provided pet therapy training/testing, inviting those with registered therapy dogs to contact me. As they did, I asked each to complete the:
- application all Excela volunteers are required to complete
- application I developed (and have since revised) which documents Excela’s health requirements for each dog and the organization through which each dog is registered as a therapy dog
Once the applications were returned, a representative for Volunteer Services obtained the screening, mandatory education, clearances and other documentation requisites needed by all Excela volunteers. These include Excela ID badges for the volunteers and their dogs, which often amuse those encountering the dogs once they begin their assignments.
When the volunteer process was completed, I met one-on-one with these new recruits and their canine(s). I determined one or more assigned locations based on their hospital preferences, and I rounded with each team for at least their first two visits. During those rounds, I was able to introduce them to the staff on their assigned area(s), alert them to signs and other particulars of those areas that will impact their visits, and observe them in action with their dogs in order to ensure a good “fit.” At other times, I made myself available for questions and concerns, assuring that the volunteers felt connected—to me and to Excela.
Additionally, I have started to receive special requests for patients in rooms not being covered on a given day or on floors not currently included in the rounds. Frequently these requests come from family members who have seen the dogs in one of the facilities. Recognizing how their own pets brighten their days, the pet therapy volunteers have been very cooperative and together with the nursing staff and the families, I have been able accommodate these requests. In fact, I am in the process of developing a policy and procedure to expedite this practice.
For February 23, 2015, which was International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day, I designed a “thank you” post card and mailed it along with treats to each dog. On Monday, April 27, two of our long-standing volunteers and I taped a half-hour radio interview on pet therapy for a local radio station, WCNS, for their “Animal Talk with Tegan” segment. It aired that Saturday. On June 26, I hosted a “meet and greet” event at Rizzo’s Malabar Inn, Crabtree, PA, to provide my administrators and me with an opportunity to formally thank the pet therapy volunteers and give them a chance to meet each other and exchange stories. Although not in attendance, each dog was featured in a photo display I created so that the canine component was not overlooked at the event. Throughout the year, I also recognized each of the dogs and their humans with a birthday card for their special days.
Since July 1, each new volunteer has been completing a “Behavioral Survey,” which I developed as part of the application process for each new dog. Since therapy dogs are not required to retest annually, this survey helps me to determine if the dog is suitable for the health care setting from a social standpoint, regardless of when it was first registered.
In September, I fashioned a display for both the system quarterly leadership meeting and the physician social, where key stakeholders had a chance to see the progress of the service and interact with some of our volunteers and their dogs. In fact, at the leadership meeting, the dogs’ pictures were taken wearing pink sunglasses for a newly-released video that the health system made highlighting 3-D mammography, a new system service. The handout I developed and distributed at these events can now be used when one of the teams visits the Nurse Residency Program three times per year or when other opportunities arise to showcase the service.
As I approach my one-year anniversary coordinating Excela’s pet therapy services, more is in the works—a logo for Excela’s pet therapy services, a “Therapy Dog of the Month” program, “greeters” for CME/CE programs, collaboration with system hospice services and more. I can now understand why any article on pet therapy touts these factors as temporary benefits of a pet therapy visit for patients:
- relieves stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue
- lowers blood pressure
- raises mood
- reduces the perception of pain
I realize why families and other visitors respond so positively, knowing the temporary reprieve visits provide from the stress of loved ones’ hospitalizations. Still, as an employee myself, I have been most delighted to see the impact these teams have had on staff morale, too. When I walk down the hall with a team and hear staff acknowledging dogs by their names, indicating a fondness for these visits, it reinforces that pet therapy is a service that benefits everyone.
Having worked at Excela for more than 29 years, I have been involved in the start-up and/or restructuring of numerous programs and services but strictly from the standpoint of a medical librarian. Researching the validity or viability of a program under consideration or determining how other organizations are operating a service is an expected part of my daily role, which is gratifying. Still the literature I locate or the data I discover is handed off to others to review and incorporate into the project at hand. In this case, I have also been able to use the information I have uncovered, bringing an added dimension to my library role and enhancing my level of satisfaction for the research process.
Finally, I am pleased that the number of volunteers has increased to more than 15 and the number of active dogs is hovering around 20 with applications pending. The program now reaches into far more departments/units and waiting areas than it did a year ago, and it includes dogs as small as a 4-lb. Yorkie and as large as a 115-lb. Old English sheepdog. Yes, Library Services has “gone to the dogs”—Amelia, Bear, Bella, Booker, Canon, Dougie, Heidi, Higgins, Kane, Kasey, Kassidy, Kaylan, Kyle, Narco, Odie, Razz, Rosie, Roxanna, Riley, “little” Rusty, “big” Rusty, Stix, Stone, Tucker and Willow. That’s a good thing—a doggone good thing!
Some of Excela’s therapy dogs