GW Hospital expands pet therapy

Esther Kramer has been visiting GW Hospital for arthritis treatment, and until now, her rehabilitation exercise has been somewhat painful. But a new addition to the staff, a nine-year-old golden retriever named Maggie, has helped make the process a bit easier.

As the hospital’s first “pet therapist,” Maggie arrived at GW about three weeks ago to provide patients in the acute rehabilitation unit with therapeutic companionship and help with their rehabilitation exercises.

“For sick people, to have an animal around is just wonderful. She was a delight,” said Kramer, who explained she was able to brush Maggie painlessly in a motion that resembles her regular exercise. “I love having (Maggie) here. She is better than any silly treadmill.”

Pet therapy dogs, which come in all breeds and sizes, are often used at treatment sites such as hospitals and nursing homes to help improve relationships between patients and their doctors and decrease patient stress levels, according to Therapy Dogs International, the organization that certifies pet therapists, including Maggie. Therapy dogs have also been shown to lower feelings of isolation and depression in patients.

“(Maggie) does a lot of encouraging,” said Caroline Luisi, clinical coordinator for GW Hospital’s acute rehabilitation unit. “For example, a patient with Parkinson’s disease wasn’t walking far, but then wanted to catch up to Maggie,” Luisi said, adding that the patient, who previously could only walk 50 feet, followed Maggie for up to 200 feet.

Mary Zwiefel, Maggie’s owner and the hospital’s executive director of rehabilitation services, said she knew her dog would be a good addition to the hospital.

“As a therapist myself, it was always something I wanted to do,” Zwiefel said. “(Maggie) is such a people dog.”

Luisi said she would like to expand GW’s rehabilitation unit to include more than one dog, but finding more willing participants has been difficult.

“The problem is there aren’t many people interested in training their dogs (to be pet therapists),” she said. “We would love to have people come just for visitations with pets. The program can be expanded as long as there are people willing to bring their pets.”

Zwiefel said she has begun asking volunteers from the Fairfax Pets on Wheels program, an organization that brings pet therapists to area nursing homes and assisted living facilities and has also certified Maggie, to bring their dogs to the GW Hospital.

Zwiefel said one volunteer will bring her dog to the hospital next week.

“(Maggie) has been received even better then myself,” she said. “She’s really popular with patients and staff. Medical students often come over just to pet her.”

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