Canines who care: Therapy dogs from PCV fixtures at local hospitals

Christy Brown at home with Lacey and Rudy (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Christy Brown at home with Lacey and Rudy (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

In Town & Village’s first ever Dog Days of Summer issue four years ago, we profiled the dog therapy duo Christy Brown and her Maltese pooch Lacey, who together brightened the days of patients undergoing treatment at the Hospital for Joint Diseases.

Recently, however, team Brown became a power pooch trio thanks to the addition of another Maltese, Rudy — and he’s actually developed a following of people who request to see him.

“It’s a very rewarding experience,” said Brown, a resident of Peter Cooper Village. “Patients look forward to seeing the dogs.”

Thanks to both dogs being pint-sized (Lacey’s six and a half pounds while Rudy’s four and a half) even patients who’ve recently undergone surgery can hold and enjoy them.

The holding and petting is important in dog therapy, which, Brown noted, can help to alleviate conditions such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and even pain.

It’s also useful for patients attempting to regain mobility because of the incentive a cute pooch offers.

“You put a dog in someone’s lap, it can make a huge difference if they’re trying to get some mobility back.”

In the case of her dogs, Brown’s also noticed that it helps the patient experience that the dogs’ fur is long.

“Originally I had her hair shorter,” Brown said of Lacey. But when she got Rudy, his hair was on the longer side and Brown realized, “People like to have something to pet. The hair is very therapeutic and very soothing and it doesn’t shed.”

Lacey, a rescue from a puppy mill in Missouri who Brown got when she was three, began her training for dog therapy shortly after that. Since then Brown has taken her to HJD on Wednesdays and Memorial Sloan Kettering on Fridays.

Five-year-old Rudy has also become a regular at the cancer care center, so much so that on days he’s scheduled to come in, usually Tuesdays, a little sign announcing his arrival is put up.

Rudy and Lacey are two of 28 dogs that are in Memorial Sloan’s Caring Canine program.

Brown has had him since September when she adopted him from a Flatiron resident who was told by a vet she had to give up one of her two dogs since they were always fighting. It was the veterinarian who arranged the adoption since he knew Brown was looking for another Maltese with a temperament suitable for her volunteer work at hospitals.

The work for the dogs differs slightly at each hospital. At HJD the Browns see orthopedic patients after surgery, who are usually there for short stays.

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, they stick to the head and neck department, where stays are usually longer with repeat customers.

“The chances of seeing Rudy more than once are great,” said Brown.

For the past month however Rudy’s been on medical leave following an incident in early July when he was roughly shaken by a greyhound in Peter Cooper.

The shaking caused his eye to bulge out and he needed immediate surgery on the eye. Rudy has since healed but Brown said she isn’t pushing him back to work until she gets the okay from the vet, Dr. Timothy Mann of Whole Health, at an upcoming followup visit.

Brown said she isn’t sure was prompted the attack other than the possibility it was due to Rudy’s habit of barking at other passing dogs. Because of this Brown said she isn’t blaming the greyhound or its owner.

Meanwhile, according to Brown, any owners considering volunteering with their pets should make sure Fido fits the following criteria.

“Your dog has to like being handled and petted and be comfortable with people,” she said.

This should even be true in cases where someone’s injuries or infirmities mean they could end up petting or handling the dogs in a rough or clumsy way.

Therapy dogs also need to be willing to follow commands. They should also be clean and shampooed.

Additionally, animal therapy isn’t something that can only be done at hospitals or nursing homes. Some libraries have adopted programs where children who have learning disabilities, autism or other obstacles reading will read to dogs.

“It’s tremendously helpful because they’re interacting with a dog, not a teacher or therapist,” said Brown.

In order to get started in animal therapy, pets and their owners must first go through a once-a-week, six-week training program at their own expense.

Brown did hers at Bideawee, recalling that it cost about $500. During that time instructors will do things like test the dogs’ reaction when handled a little roughly or having its fur brushed the wrong way. The dogs will need to get along with others in the class where there is one trainer per dog. Their owners, too, will be getting evaluated.

“You can have a dog that passes everything but you don’t pass everything,” Brown said.

She, Lacey and Rudy passed and Brown feels they make good partners because “I can communicate with the dogs without saying anything.”

Most of the time verbal commands aren’t even necessary as Lacey’s bedside manner is such that she’ll often get onto a patient’s bed and curl up there for a nap. If for some reason she isn’t comfortable with a patient, she lets out a single, whispery “woof.”

Brown sometimes responds by telling her, “’Settle,’ and she’ll try to settle.”

Other times, Brown admitted, Lacey will just cock her head and look at her as if to say, “Didn’t you get it?” Fortunately, said Brown, most of the time Lacey is very calm and focused while working, unlike when she’s at home and more inclined to run around with Rudy as well as Brown’s cat Daphne who dwarfs both pooches.

Cats can also be trained as therapy animals as can birds and rabbits. HJD, Brown said, “has a couple of rabbits in residence.”

While Daphne’s friendly behavior would seem to make her a good candidate, quickly finding her way onto this reporter’s lap during the interview with her owner, Brown said she doesn’t think so.

Being feline, she doesn’t care much for being put in a carrier and isn’t caught easily for the trips to the hospital. “She’s too fast,” said Brown.

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