Although fun is built into the program, Miller, Choa, and Aubie take their jobs seriously. They are the teaching dogs in Auburn University’s Nursing Program in Auburn, Alabama.
“As far as we know, it’s the only pet-assisted therapy program for class credit in a nursing school,” says Dr. Stuart Pope, Doctor of Nursing Practice. “It started about five years ago when I met with a donor at a café who asked me what I would do if I had the funds. I wrote out a five year plan on a napkin. Those goals were reached in the first year.”
The Canines Assisting Rehabilitation and Education program (CAREing Paws) is an extraordinary experience for nursing students who can see firsthand how patients react to dogs trained to support patient care. The human-dog bond helps them heal emotionally, socially, mentally, and physically. A combination of hands-on clinical experience with classroom teaching shows students the impact dogs can have with even chronic illnesses.
In the program’s first year, twelve students enrolled in the class. Currently, enrollment is at 60 students. “The class is elective, not required,” says Pope. “We know the students are there because they want to learn.”
The class helps people understand what dogs are capable of and how they can assist people in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and libraries. The students learn that rescue dogs are not throw away, unwanted animals but rather are valuable beings who love to work and have a purpose. “Each week, I’d guess the three dogs are petted by 200 to 300 people and are ready for more,” he says.
Part of the program requires students to conduct research that studies how exposure to pet-assisted therapy helps lessen aggressive behaviors, improve memory or reading skills, correct lack of attention to the task at hand, and better social skills for older or autistic patients. “Next semester we’ll work with the Methodist Church on a cognitive research project,” Pope says.
Pet-assisted therapy (PAT) differs from pet-provided therapy (PPT). In PAT, the dogs work with the physical or occupational therapist and the patient to achieve specific goals, such as an increased range of motion and improved fine motor skills. A rehab patient who is reluctant to do arm exercises is much more willing to brush the dog’s hair or throw the ball, activities which achieve the same result as traditional therapy.
PPT involves emotional and social support. It brings smiles, may spark memories, and gets patients talking and sharing as the dogs and their handlers visit with nursing home residents or hospital patients.
“Miller is a Golden Retriever, Choa, a Yellow Labrador-Golden Retriever mix. They’re big enough for patients to pet them from a wheelchair or to walk with them to improve balance,” says Pope. “We visit hospitals, nursing homes, and schools two or three times a week. Aubie is a much smaller Shih Tzu. He’s popular as a lap dog or someone to snuggle with for anybody confined to a hospital bed.”
On campus, there are special interest clubs too. During the last sign up period, 475 students expressed interest in the therapy dog program. “The only hindrance to expanding the program is human participation and money. We operate on donations but don’t ask for a specific amount,” Pope says. “We’re training experienced students to train classmates now to give volunteers a break when they need it while the program continues to grow.”
To visit a hospital or nursing home, CAREing Paws dogs must be comfortable around medical equipment such as IV poles, wheelchairs, hospital beds that can move, and beeping machines. “Leave it” is a command they have to obey since a dropped pill could make the dog sick. Jumping on people isn’t allowed because fragile skin can easily tear.
School visits require discipline from both the dogs and the kids to prevent licked faces, stolen cookies, or a mob scene when the dog arrives. In a school setting, everyone needs space in order to have the best visit possible. Visits to schools help kids with social skills such as taking turns and sharing.
Hard-working dogs need proper care. Miller, Choa, and Aubie make frequent visits to the veterinarian, eat nutritious food, and receive regular baths and grooming to make sure they look their best when visiting people. All three are Pope’s dogs and live with him.
In the past, medical staff has often thought dogs shouldn’t be in a hospital setting due to possible germs. Thanks to dogs like Miller, Choa, and Aubie, that attitude is changing. Recent graduate nurses are experienced in the benefits of pet-assisted therapy. Pope believes the ripple effect will help other dogs be rescued and trained, heal more patients, and give dogs what they want most—a job and a purpose, surrounded by people they can help.