Dogs play important role at hospital's psychiatric unit

Julia Spitz

Shane doesn't know the classic signs of bipolar disorder.

He has no theory about manic depression, no license to treat schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress.

Yet, like his colleagues - Archie, Boomer, Edward Bear and Ginger - Shane has been known to achieve results any doctor would envy.

"Very often in psychiatry, it takes awhile to see change" in a patient, admitted Dr. John Fromson, chairman of the psychiatry department at MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, Mass. "When these dogs come in with their handlers, you see immediate change. You see people smile. You see people react to another living thing.

"Dogs have an uncanny ability to give love."

Just by being themselves.

Size doesn't matter. They can be as big as Shane, a 125-pound Shiloh shepherd owned by Anne Codman of Medway, Mass., or as petite as Framingham resident Jonathan Rankin's pomeranian, Ginger.

Looks count for some people.

Senior citizens open up to Boomer, a black and white Boston terrier. His breed was particularly popular in the late 1930s and 1940s, so his appearance can trigger memories of childhood for those who grew up in that era, said Boomer's owner, Monica Foley of Needham, Mass.

Archie, Lisa Lewis' Cavalier King Charles spaniel, has a special appeal for kids, said the Needham resident.

Lewis, a member of Caring Canines, said she likes to tell young patients about the breed's traits, and was particularly touched by a boy "spilling his guts to the dog. 'Archie, you get anxious? I get anxious, too.' "

Of course, kids' complete candor can be a double-edged sword.

After asking if a child thought there was any truth to the adage about dogs and their owners looking alike, Lewis said she was told, "You both have little wrinkles around your eyes."

But looks aren't the most important factor here.

"It has to be the right dog," said Anne Marie Surman, who, along with husband Ned Surman and their Pembroke Welsh corgi Edward Bear, is a regular visitor at the Leonard Morse Behavioral Medicine Unit in Natick, Mass.

The Surmans' other dog, Arthur, is the same breed, but "this wouldn't be his thing," said Anne Marie.

Put to the test

Temperament is the key to success, and dogs have to pass specialized tests to receive certification from groups such as Caring Canines and Therapy Dogs International.

The Surmans, who live in Hopkinton, Mass., took Edward to MasterPeace Dog Training for his TDI-sanctioned test about a year ago.

"They have kids running, screaming," and people with walkers to see how the dog reacts, said Anne Marie Surman. Another challenge is having someone drop a tray of food. The dog can't be spooked by the sound, but the harder part is he can't eat the spilled food if he hopes to get certified.

"The 11th test, where most people fail, is the separation test, where the dog has to be without the owner for three minutes," and have no problem being with a stranger, said Ned Surman. But "the real test is when you come here (to the hospital) and they can make people open up.

"You can train them to pass the (certification) test, but when they get in here, they have to be themselves," said Surman.

Edward passed all tests, and now has an ID card with his name, photo and certification number. Annual renewal through Therapy Dogs International requires proof he's up-to-date on shots and has made a specified number of visits to nursing homes, hospitals or other institutions that use pet therapy.

For Caring Canine membership, "you have to commit to doing 10 visits a year," said Lewis.

A nurse is credited with launching pet therapy in the mid-1970s after seeing how patients reacted to a chaplain's golden retriever.

While some hospital units aren't good matches for visiting animals, the idea became particularly popular at nursing homes, where dogs, cats, even birds are usually welcome.

Shane is a familiar sight at Medway Country Manor and Riverbend in South Natick, and "it's been a nice experience for all," Codman said.

"I wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't fun for me," said the retired music teacher.

At MetroWest Medical Center's psychiatric unit, "we started with (Caring Canines) six years ago, with the child development unit," said Sherri Hebert, coordinator of the hospital's pet therapy program. The program was more recently expanded to the geriatric psychiatric and adult locked units, she said.

"Patients who really can't remember when they felt well, (when they see the dogs) they just melt," said Heather Bertone, a clinical social worker in the adult inpatient unit, and so do staff members who have jobs that are often stressful.

"It's win-win for everybody," said Hebert.

The human factor

Patients have the choice to meet the dogs or not.

"It's a self-selective group," said Fromson.

And the dogs have to pass tests to prove they're up for most any challenge.

But what about the human companions?

"You definitely need to prepare people, this is the behavior you could encounter," said Lewis.

Therapy Dogs International sends a DVD to familiarize members with some of the types of patients they're likely to meet in different settings, said Ned Surman, and, at MetroWest Medical, prospective pet therapy teams also must go through orientation with Volunteer Services.

Canine Companions has a mentor accompany newbies on the first few visits, said Lewis.

The bottom line is it's pretty much the same for the handlers as it is for the dogs. If they're not temperamentally suited for the task, they're not likely to be drawn to the program.

"These are beautiful dogs, but the volunteers are lovely," said Beverly Presson, coordinator for the child development unit. "Special people with special dogs."

Ned Surman said he was impressed with dogs who visited Spaulding Rehabilitation Center when his father was a patient there.

"We felt if (those dogs) could do it, why couldn't Edward? We felt he had the personality. ... We wanted to give back."

"I think it starts out, you just love the dog, you want to show it off," said Lewis. "After the first visit, it's completely different."

After you see patients' response, said Anne Marie Surman, you think "How could I not do this?"

It's a pretty simple diagnosis, really.

Just ask Shane.

Julia Spitz can be reached at 508-626-3968 or Check or for the Spitz Bitz blog.