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PAWS, Stanford Medicine’s therapy dogs program, turns 20

"Get your ears up, Cici," commanded Cici's handler. Cici obediently perked her ears up and, as if for good measure, sat a little straighter too. After all, she was on duty.

Cici, a white Schnoodle posing in the photo above, and six other therapy dogs, along with their handlers, hosted a recent event at Stanford Medicine's Lane Medical Library to teach others about Pet Assisted Wellness at Stanford (PAWS). Librarian Michelle Bass, PhD, organized the event to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the PAWS program and to teach others about the hard work put in by each therapy dog and human team.

Expert animal handler Cathy Bones kicked off the event saying, “I know why you are here. You’re not here to listen to me. You are here to get [your hands] on my dog.” Attendees, eager to pet the dogs, laughed.

When Bones began the PAWS program 20 years ago, it consisted of three therapy dogs and their owners. Now PAWS has more than 20 teams of therapy dogs, each paired with their own human handler.

The PAWS training program is rigorous, Bones explained. “It doesn’t matter what breed they are, it doesn’t matter what size they are. If they have aptitude for this they can do it. Training is the biggest stumbling block."

Small dogs are ideal for therapy work because they are easy to transport and lift. Yet many small dogs lack basic obedience because, "owners often pick little dogs up instead of training them," Bones explained. "[Training] takes time and effort."

To work at Stanford, dog/human teams must have at least six months of experience in other settings. Then, human handlers must complete training on their own, followed by team training with the therapy dog.

This level of preparation is essential because it's hard work for a therapy dog and their human handler to stay alert and calm in a hospital. "Everything is on wheels, there are tubes coming out of people, there's beeping and strange noises," Bones said.

Cleanliness is a top priority too. Therapy dogs must be "immaculate" with fur groomed, teeth brushed and nails trimmed before they enter a room with a patient. Therapy dogs are assigned to different hospital areas to prevent cross-contamination and according to their skill sets.

Guinness, a Yorkshire terrier, and his handler, Tanya Chan, often work with patients that feel most comfortable with smaller dogs. Guinness likes to do tricks: If you sneeze, he'll fetch you a tissue immediately.

Many of Guinness' tricks can be appreciated from a distance or through a hospital room window, and for many patents just having a dog nearby seems to help, Chan said.

"I've been with patients, and we will talk, then later a caretaker will tell me the patient I was just chatting with hadn’t spoken in months," Bones said.

The PAWS therapy dogs are in high demand. PAWS recently expanded their efforts to include a special visit for staff, called Cuddles for Caregivers. The program meets on the first and third Wednesday of each month and already it's attracting 50 to 100 people each visit.

“This is a win, win, win for everybody." Bones said. "It’s a win for everybody we pass in the hallway — the staff love it, the patients love it, we love it and the dogs love it."

The program is looking for new pet and handler teams, Bones said. Visit PAWS to learn more.

Previously: Therapy dogs take a bite out of student stress before exams and Psychiatric trained dogs help in the battle of PTSD.
Photo by Holly Alyssa MacCormick

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