Healing with Man’s Best Friend
By Michelle Trauring
All it takes is a certain glimmer in Susan Appell’s eye for Lulu to wag her tail uncontrollably.
And then come the five magic words.
“We’re going to work today!” Appell exclaims to her 12-year-old goldendoodle, who is now beside herself. She’s not one to catch a “case of the Mondays.”
Without any further encouragement from Appell, Lulu is already in the car, her mother not far behind, with a special dog harness and identification badge in tow. When Lulu puts them on, she is immediately transformed. No longer is she solely Appell’s loveable sidekick. She’s the main attraction.
She’s a pet therapy dog — one of 15 canines involved in the three-year-old program coordinated by Pet Partners at Southampton Hospital, which Appell now helms. Kickstarted by Jane Moss and her own goldendoodle, Dipsy, the program has grown exponentially since, which is sometimes difficult for the founder to grasp.
“It actually happened. It’s actually happening, which is just so incredible,” Moss said, noting it took several pitches and considerable pushback before the program finally launched, and to great success. “Dipsy was really the only dog for about the first six months and it just makes me so happy that we got all these dogs. It’s fantastic.”
Ranging from adolescents to seniors, and breeds as large as Scottish deerhounds, the dogs visit, entertain and distract short-term patients from a range of illnesses, injuries and conditions — from broken hips and gall bladder removals to Alzheimer’s and dementia, Moss said.
“The reaction to the pet therapy dogs amazes us,” said registered nurse Catherine O’Sullivan, who works on the hospital’s third floor. “Even patients who are unresponsive and can’t express themselves become alert, and even smile, when a dog enters the room. It’s incredible to see the effect a dog has on a patient. We love them, too.”
The pet therapy dogs often provide a temporary, much-needed escape for hospital staff. They stop to mingle with the doctors, nurses and janitorial team in the hallways, who experience their own daily stresses. For the dogs, they don’t discriminate, and are trained to treat everyone the same.
At least that’s what volunteer Dana Polizzotto sees in her 9-year-old miniature Australian labradoodle, Andie.
“I learn from her. Dogs have that unconditional love quality. I’m still working on that,” she laughed. “Andie has, truly, a kind spirit about her, and she’s very affectionate and gentle — and she’s pretty doggone cute, I have to say. Little kids always think she’s a teddy bear. She’s happy pretty much anytime she can be with you. She’ll do anything, she’ll go anywhere. She brings a certain calm with her, and I just had a feeling she’d be a great therapy dog.”
The canines’ general dispositions are important to their success as therapy dogs, but there are more factors at play, Appell said. They must be able to adapt to their environment, given the complex, busy nature of a hospital. They cannot spook easily, or at all, and must display proper etiquette, such as not jumping on a patient’s bed. The dogs must seem intuitive, social, loveable and enjoy the work.
And, most importantly of all, the relationship and connection between the handler and the dog is key, she said.
“We really do have some great teams, but some of them are seasonal. We have a few dogs in the city now, and a couple dogs that winter in Palm Beach. They’ll be back in the summer—only in the Hamptons!” Appel said. “We only have one dog per day that visits and, because the hospital is so small, it works well to do that. But we’re growing all the time, it’s pretty amazing. But we take our time with who we let in, because even if the dog passes the tests, you have to make sure the dog is enjoying the work, as well.”
The pet therapy program begins with an evaluation program for the dog, which five canines just recently passed. Then, the human part of the team will take an online course, which culminates in an evaluation. If both the dog and human pass, they must complete the final round of training at the hospital, which includes a new employee program, several shadow visits, health exams and an orientation program — as well as a background check for the handler.
If all goes as planned, a dog could be ready for pet therapy in as little as a month, Appel said. The cost — which typically doesn’t exceed $200, of which $70 covers the Pet Partners online course — is covered completely by the handler, and the program adds zero expense to the hospital’s operating budget, according to Marsha Kenny, the director of public affairs and marketing at Southampton Hospital.
“We embraced it. We thought it was a great idea,” Kenny said of the program. “A lot of people in the hospital have pets and we all know the benefit of having a pet. It’s been proven that animals help reduce stress in people. Being able to scratch a dog behind the ear is really a stress reliever.”
Each canine has a different tact when it comes to their patients, the handlers agreed. Take Dipsy, for example. Her go-to move is what Moss calls “The Dance.” First, she chases her tail in a circle, then weaves in and out of her owner’s legs, gives her a high-five, and then bows down. Moss places a cookie on her nose, which Dipsy then tosses up in the air and catches in her mouth.
This is usually a crowd pleaser, Moss said, but sometimes it’s the most primitive humor that resonates. The second Southampton patient the team visited was a “renowned musician known throughout the Hamptons,” she said. He was in palliative care, she said. He only had hours left.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be hard,’” Moss said. “Dipsy and I go in and he doesn’t say anything to us. He’s just looking at us with the saddest face, completely silent. They had this music going, it was a hospice situation.”
They continued staring at one another as the handler’s internal monologue continued. “What am I gonna do?” she asked herself. “Dipsy is rather big and I’m a little shrimp.” And with that, she scooped the dog up in her arms, not knowing what to expect.
“She takes up about three-quarters of my body when I’m standing, and his eyes opened wide when I did that,” Moss recalled. “Dipsy looked at him and looked back at me, and then looked at him and looked back at me, and then belched in my face, like she’d been a sailor on a bender who had done two six-packs. It was this resounding belch and it almost seemed to echo against the walls.”
And then, against all odds, the patient laughed. He laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
“I still get verklempt when I talk about this, and it’s been years,” Moss said. “He died two hours later, and we gave him his last laugh. He had this last moment of feeling what it’s like to just crack up. It was so magical. It was just so magical.”
Typically, the handler walks into a room blind, not knowing what awaits them. On one particular day, Appell was faced with a man who looked strikingly similar to her father, who had died the year before.
“I took one look at him and I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was like looking at my dad,” she said. “I can’t describe it as sadness. It was just very emotional. So like, right now talking about it, I’m all choked up and my eyes are tearing, but I’m not sad. There’s a difference between being sad, I’m-knocked-out-for-the-day and just being emotional.”
“But I’ve had to walk out of a room and go around the corner and compose myself,” she added. “It’s like, ‘I can’t wipe away those tears anymore, they’re coming on too strong and I have to take a deep breath and focus.’ It’s really a privilege to have that intimacy with a complete stranger and their family. It’s just about giving, that’s all it is. I’m hoping that me being here with this little dog just brings a little bit of comfort to whoever is in the room. Everything about it is good.”
This is the reason the teams volunteer, Appell said. This is why they do what they do. During an average one- to two-hour visit, Lulu—who is known for uncontrollably kissing her patients—will see anywhere from one to a dozen patients, her handler said.
“Sometimes it takes 15 minutes just to get up in the elevator because so many people stop you and talk to the dog,” she said. “It’s a really positive, uplifting time when a dog comes. A family member or a patient will say, ‘You’re so nice to do this,’ but we get so much out of it. I think it just gives them a moment to take a breath, to not have to think about everything that’s happening to you.”
Lulu gives Appell visual cues when she starts to get fatigued. Her tail starts to droop and she begins to lose interest — all so subtly, in a way only her owner would notice.
When they get back to the car, the first thing Appell does is lean down to Lulu, wraps her arms around her and says, “You did such a great job today, Lulu. You’re such a good girl.”
Within seconds of walking through the front door, Lulu will be sound asleep on the sofa.
“Well, she is 12. And she’s had many little biscuits along the way,” Appell said. “It feels good. It’s an honor to be able to share the companionship of my dog and what warmth and love my dog gives me. It’s great to be able to share that with other people. Anyone who owns a dog and has that sort of feeling about it is happy to share that, for sure.”