The young woman bent over in her wheelchair, stretching her muscles to the limit as she tossed a treat to the big black dog.
While focusing on the scene at hand, one might miss the look of intense pain that crosses her face as she struggles to toss a biscuit reward to the Labrador retriever/Rottweiler mix named Tank.
The scene plays out several times a day at Akron Children’s Hospital, where therapy dogs such as Tank are an integral part of the rehabilitation process, said physical therapist Kate Patton of Tallmadge.
“The dogs make our plan of care effective. We come in with a plan and they make it happen,” Patton said of the dogs enrolled in the therapy program with the Children’s Hospital Doggie Brigade.
For Allison Hill, 26, dogs such as Tank will help her reach her goal — live as independently as possible — sooner with only one care provider.
“[The dogs] are motivating,” said Hill of Ravenna, who attends the therapy sessions eight hours a day, five days a week.
“If it wasn’t for the dogs encouraging me, I wouldn’t want to do it,” she admitted.
Hill, who was born with cerebral palsy, started rehabilitation at the hospital following surgery that removed a pain pump from her body. During the process from changing to oral pain medication, she was enrolled in the hospital’s therapy program, doing exercises to deal with acute changes in her muscle function.
With each muscle she uses in her spine, legs and arms as she bends over to pet the dog, the pain can be excruciating. It registers on her face.
It’s enough to keep many patients at home if it weren’t for the fact they would miss working with the dogs, said Chris Witschey of Wadsworth, who is credited with being one of the leaders of the program. Her three therapy dogs have some of the same special needs as the patients, which might make it easier for children and adults to relate.
Tank, who suffered knee problems until implanted metal plates helped him walk, has an innate sense of empathy that makes him a standout among the hospital’s 78 dogs in its Doggie Brigade program, Patton said.
“Tank is the most perceptive when the kids are in discomfort,” she said.
“He will actually get between the patient and the therapist when he thinks they’ve had enough,” Witschey agreed.
Handsome, a deaf Australian shepherd/rottweiler mix who understands commands in American sign language, and Gracie, a rescued, three-legged husky mix, round out Witschey’s team.
“The dogs are one of the biggest motivators to keep them engaged. This is an all-day program and [the patients] get burned out,” Witschey said.
At a recent session, Jeannie Bussey of Hartville, a special education teacher, shadowed Witschey and Tank with her Bernese Mountain Dog, who is called Blessing because he was one of 10 dogs in a litter born on Thanksgiving Day.
Bussey is training to move from visitations to therapy in the program. Blessing, already in the brigade of visitation dogs, is honing up her therapy skills.
“If a child is afraid, [Blessing] will sit real still and slowly move her head closer until the child feels comfortable with her,” Bussey said.
Almost every patient in the hospital is aware of the visiting dogs, said Dr. Micah Baird, Hill’s physiatrist, who practices physical medicine and is a rehabilitation therapy specialist.
“I’ve worked in other hospitals where they have allowed dogs to come in but never one where they have had so many dogs working in the program and where they put the dogs through the training they do here,” Baird said.
“Really, if you go to any part of the hospital and ask a patient about it, you’ll find that most of them will know about the dogs,” he said.
Every handler and dog in the brigade team must meet strict requirements and be registered by Pet Partners, formerly the Delta Society, to be in the hospital. Animals must be evaluated by hospital volunteer trainers Janet Morgan of Springfield Township and Ken McCort, a professional animal trainer from Doylestown, said Cindy Duncan, a supervisor in the hospital’s volunteer department.
Handlers must be screened, undergo a background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and be fingerprinted.
“That weeds out anyone we wouldn’t want in the program. If you have anything in your background, it will show up,” she said.
The program averages about 25 new applications each year. Each applicant is charged a $50 fee, said Duncan, who lives in Akron.
“Out of 25, maybe half will make it,” she said.
Duncan said it isn’t unusual for an employee to call her office in search of a dog at times.
“If there is a problem with getting an IV in, they call to see if we have a dog here. We send them up and they de-stress the kids,” she said.
Baird agreed the dogs can be a huge help when dealing with a fearful child.
“I think it makes the experience more pleasurable than painful, and if nothing else, it’s a distraction from the pain they are experiencing,” he said.
Morgan, who owns two golden retrievers in the program, said it takes a special animal to make the cut in her evaluations.
“If they haven’t been properly socialized, they probably won’t pass the application process,” she said.
Becoming a Doggie Brigade team member could cost upwards of $200 from beginning to end, Morgan said. Then the handler must commit to at least 26, two-hour visits each year. Each dog must be groomed within 24 hours before they visit the hospital.
“Largely, we’re blessed at Akron Children’s to have the program because the dogs are so available for our kids,” Baird said.
“I think the kids really benefit from it, both from the physical [and] emotional standpoint of getting through their physical recovery.”
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.