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Pet Therapy Program Brings Joy, Decreases Stress for Cancer Patients

Posted on Mar 30, 2012

The Palo Alto Center Radiation Oncology Department’s three newest employees bring some very special qualities to work – gentle natures, soft fur and wet noses! Therapy specialists Sparky, Sunny and Wallie are the first three dogs who are part of PAMF’s Irene Davidson Animal Assisted Therapy Program that launched in January 2012.

Although Gordon Ray, M.D., medical director of the Palo Alto Center’s Radiation Oncology Department, had read about the benefits of pet therapy for cancer patients in scientific journals, it was a real live dog visit to his department that inspired him to start PAMF’s Animal Assisted Therapy Program.

“One of our patients had his service dog with him during an appointment,” says Dr. Ray who launched the program together with Tina Pierce, administrative director of PAMF’s Programs of Excellence; Inger Saxe, a director of  risk management and quality improvement; and Jan van Boeschoten, director of the Palo Alto Center Radiation Oncology Department. “I noticed the positive effect the dog’s presence had on patients in the waiting room. Patients were talking to each other more and the atmosphere seemed lighter and more relaxed.”

Wallie

Wallie, a cute-as-a-button poodle mix and the department’s first therapy dog, has been working his magic on patients for a couple of weeks now.

“We have seen a strong attachment grow between some of our patients who specially request to see Wallie when they come in for treatment,” says Dr. Ray. “There’s also a real sense of joy when he is present during their follow up exams.”

Furry colleagues Sparky (beagle), Sunny (golden retriever) and Wallie currently hang out in the department’s patient waiting room several hours a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays ready to be stroked and petted. These specially certified pet therapy dogs come from the Peninsula Humane Society (SPCA) and Furry Friends who also train and provide the handlers who accompany the dogs to work.

“These are all quiet, well-behaved dogs,” says van Boeschoten. “They don’t jump up or lick, are very friendly and always happy to be touched and petted. Our department is very high-tech with big machines and serious treatments – the dogs offer a welcome distraction and help make the whole treatment experience less frightening.”

The department provides two waiting rooms so patients can choose a dog-free environment if they prefer. Staff also note in each patient’s record if they prefer the therapy dogs’ presence or not.

Sparky shares the love with a patient

Sunny brings his mellow disposition to work

The Animal Assisted Therapy Program will be offered in the Mountain View Center Oncology Department next month and at the new Sunnyvale Center when it opens in 2013.

The program was named after longtime PAMF patient Irene Davidson. Davidson was a radiation therapist and a strong believer in the positive role that animals can play in promoting wellness among cancer patients. She dedicated funds in her will to PAMF’s Animal Assisted Therapy Program.

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