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Mon, Sept. 16

Delta Dogs dispense dollops of devotion

Moon, a three-year-old Australian Shepherd, is a certified Delta Society Therapy Dog, and he and owner Kathy Bryan are one of 18 dog/handler teams that visit YRMC on a regular basis. Handlers visit the nursing desk first, check in, and ask if there are any patients who would like a visit from a therapy dog. Then, the miracles begin.

Delta Society is a not-for-profit, international therapy dog organization that has been in existence since 1977. Local Delta Society teams, which include, along with a contingent of Aussies, everything from a tiny Chihuahua to a soon-to-be-certified Great Dane, create wonderful moments every time they visit patients at YRMC. Bryan said she obtains a list of patients during each visit, but doesn't have a lot of information on each one. So moments like the one with the little girl last week are pleasant surprises.

"Every (team) has stories to tell about how the dogs affect the lives of patients, families and visitors," said Yavapai Humane Society Animal Behaviorist Gary DeGeronimo who, with of Volunteer Director Lynell Walters, tailored the program to YRMC. DeGeronimo has been a therapy dog consultant since 1988 and is a certified evaluator for dog/handler teams interested in becoming part of the Delta Society.

Walters had heard about the program and thought it would be a good fit for YRMC's "Total Healing Environment" concept.

She said the program has been a huge success at YRMC.

"The reception has been overwhelmingly positive," she said. "We are looking now for (the teams) to go into more complex environments."

Delta teams now visit only certain floors of the hospital, but as staff and administration sees their positive impact, they are looking at how to incorporate them into more areas of YRMC. These may include the emergency room, cath lab, IV therapy areas, and even intensive care, Walters said.

The Delta Society dogs work their special kind of canine magic on families and staff as well as patients.

"We always ask permission to enter a room," Kathy Bryan said. "One family member said 'No,' but then looked at her father, who was a patient in the room. He had told her, 'Look at that beautiful Aussie!' She said, 'I haven't seen his eyes light up like that for so long – please stay.'"

Handler Esther Houston visited a terminally ill patient with her little black Aussie Rosie, and when the patient responded, attending staff was in tears.

"Patients may be hooked up to equipment, not moving, and then will respond (to the dogs). They'll reach out and interact," DeGeronimo said.

The hospital environment can be stressful for staff and families, too, and when these canine ambassadors simply walk down the hallways, nurses, doctors, and visitors reach out to pat them and say a few words. The dogs love it – and Rosie goes a step further by rolling over for a "belly rub." The dogs all wear special vests and ID tags, and seem as excited to go to the hospital as the people who enjoy their visits.

DeGeronimo's Golden Retriever is a mature dog of eight, but he still has to spell "h-o-s-p-i-t-a-l" when talking to his wife if he doesn't want Nikki to begin excitedly pacing and waiting for her leash and vest.

"I'll stop when she doesn't enjoy it anymore," he said.

The oldest dog of the group is Jamie, Jean Wu's 9 1/2 year old Labrador.

Each Delta team visits the hospital for only about an hour at a time. The dogs are working, and the intense environment can be stressful. They calmly sidestep huge floor cleaners and noisy carts in the hall, gently stand up on their hind legs at floor stations to beg treats from nurses, and happily submit to petting and fussing from patients and visitors of all ages. The dogs must be able to deal with noisy equipment and the occasionally uncoordinated movements and speech of ill patients. After a visit, the dogs will often go home and sleep the rest of the day, Houston said.

Along with a calm demeanor, Delta dogs must be at least a year old, and the handler must have owned them for at least six months, DeGeronimo said. The dogs must have basic obedience skills and a clean bill of health before entering the program. Then DeGeronimo begins to look for more subtle signs that a team will be a success.

"I look at dog and handler appearance – is the handler neatly dressed? Is the dog groomed? Does it smell? The dog must like to be with people. We role play with funny noises and equipment, to see the dog's responses under stress," he said.

DeGeronimo said he also looks for dogs and handlers truly in tune with each other. A handler must be able to read his dog for signs of stress, and to anticipate problem situations.

While YRMC's Delta Dogs include several accomplished canines – Moon is a nationally ranked dual-registry conformation champion, and several of the other program dogs are show champions, agility and obedience title holders, and stock trial dogs – mixed breed dogs are also welcome .

"We look for a controllable, predictable dog – we look at temperament, character, and the handler," DeGeronimo said.

Teams must complete three steps before receiving their certification – a home study or workshop course, health certification from a veterinarian, and a hands-on or skills test. After certification, handlers "shadow" an established team without their dog, and then the mature team shadows the new handler and dog until they are confident to go out on their own.

"We don't lose sight that these are happy dogs visiting sick people," DeGeronimo said. All teams follow a hospital protocol, and handlers are eager to make sure the teams are always welcome at the hospital. For some, the rules come easy – it's containing their dogs' exuberance that can be taxing. Kathy Bryan remembers catching the 70-lb. Moon in mid-air once on his way to joining a patient in his soft hospital bed.

Each handler carries a set of "business cards" with their dog's photo, and leaves one with each patient as a memento of the visit.

Most handlers enter the Delta Society Therapy program out of a desire to give back to their community while enjoying their dogs.

"It's great therapy for the handler, too," said Houston. "I retired from 50 years of nursing. This program has given me the people and hospital contacts I still enjoy."

The little miracles keep them coming back."

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