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Cold noses, warm hearts

Huntington¿s Pet Assisted Therapy program extends a paw to patients, visitors

April 06, 2011|By Sara Cardine, Special to the Valley Sun
  • Huntington Hospital volunteer Maggie Crawford shows her badge, with her 8-year-old Golden Retriever, Kai. The pair visit patients, visitors and employees weekly as part of the hospital's Pet Assisted Therapy Program, which Crawford co-founded 24 years ago.
Huntington Hospital volunteer Maggie Crawford shows…

Every Thursday, Maggie Crawford outfits her golden retriever, Kai, in a harness and a neckerchief adorned with four gold stars. After that come the name badges, which identify Kai as a dog with a mission. “ID#59773—Pet Assisted Therapy at Huntington,” one badge reads.

By the time the day is done, Crawford and Kai will have made their weekly rounds at Huntington Hospital, through the pediatric unit and the brain mapping department where patients’ seizures are tracked. They will have stopped by the medical records office to visit employees more than happy to ignore the filing long enough to sneak in a hug or a scratch behind the soft folds of Kai’s ears.

“When a dog walks in, the world becomes more normal,” said Crawford, who lives in Pasadena. “It brings a piece of the outside world into an otherwise sterile environment—the mood in the room totally changes.”

Kai is one of 35 therapy dogs who regularly visit patients, visitors and staff members at Huntington Hospital through the facility’s Pet Assisted Therapy program. Designed to cheer and comfort people in need of companionship, program volunteers visit nearly every department except the ER and maternity ward, says Crawford, who co-founded the group 24 years ago.

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La Cañada resident Dawn Witte can personally attest to the amazing power of the program. Witte is working toward a bachelor’s in psychology and recently shadowed Crawford as part of a pet assisted therapy certification course.

“It is truly magical. There were three separate visits where either the nurse or parent told us that it was the first time the child had smiled the whole time they had been there,” Witte recalled. “Kai was so gentle and well-mannered it literally gave me goose bumps.”

While there is no way to accurately quantify the healing power of a paw touch or warm nuzzle, the smiles that light up the faces of patients and visitors graced by the canine companions seem to indicate that the program just works. According to Priscilla Gamb, director of Volunteering and Customer Service at Huntington, pet visits do a lot to relieve patient anxiety.

“It gives them a break from the stress of being in a hospital,” she said. “It can actually reduce pain levels, because it gives the patient something else to focus on besides themselves and their concerns.”

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