Therapy Dog 'Spirit', Once Abused, Eases Pain for Sick, Dying

Animal-assisted therapy comforts, helps communication in sterile hospital.

ByABC News
May 3, 2012, 12:52 PM

May 4, 2012— -- For the last week, Archibald Downer -- a 65-year-old on dialysis -- has been painfully poked and prodded with needles as doctors try to figure out why his fever and blood pressure won't go down.

He is bedridden among others who are sick and dying in the palliative care unit at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, where the days and sometimes the pain seem endless.

But once a week, a warm and loving spirit sweeps through the stressful New York City hospital, and is greeted like a breath of fresh air -- Spirit, the therapy dog, that is.

With his sparkling blue eyes and friendly demeanor, the 6-year-old mutt is certified to work with patients, lifting spirits, lowering anxiety levels and easing pain -- both psychological and physical.

"He jumps on my bed and lays on my legs, getting comfortable," said Downer, a retired plumber. "It's a nice way to help those who are crying from pain. The dog makes a whole lot of difference. My arm was stinging [for repeated blood draws] but it don't bother me no more."

"Every day, I ask the doctor if I can leave," he said. "But the dog changed my mind."

Animals have provided emotional comfort to humans for thousands of years. According to the Society, animal-assisted therapy can help children who have suffered abuse or neglect and patients undergoing cancer treatments.

Pets have also forged strong bonds with veterans' families who are coping with the effects of wartime military service.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants reveals that patients report "feeling better" when they interact with an animal.

"It brings us closer not only to the patient, but to their family, as well," said Dr. Rose Guilbe, medical director of the palliative care unit and a family physician. "It creates a nicer working environment and takes away from the stiffness of medicine."

Spirit must follow strict hospital guidelines. His paws are disinfected before he enters the unit, he is on a leash and he wears a photo ID.

"Spirit needs his own insurance and has to be cleared by a veterinarian for infection control," adds Guilbe.

And he only visits those patients who have given their consent. Not all people love dogs, and the staff understands that.

"It brings out a part of the patient we don't usually see -- some joy in their personality that we don't get with opioids and other medical treatments," she said. "It also increases the communication among us in the medical community."

Spirit loves his work as much as patients do, according to his owner Linda Koebner, who found him at the pound while working in Shreveport, La.

"He looks a lot like a Siberian husky or Australian shepherd," she said. "I have been told he has a lot of [Louisiana] Catahoula in him."

Spirit had been badly abused as a pup, but remains "so gentle and sweet and just exudes affection," said Koebner, 61. "He's definitely not a testosterone-infused dog."

"Animals can have such an amazing impact on people," she said. "From what I've observed, it's the nonjudgmental piece of it. They touch something soft that is totally there for you in that moment and you don't have to do anything."

Koebner is getting her master's degree in health advocacy and has had a growing interest in end-of-life issues. She had Spirit certified in pet therapy and approached Montefiore a year ago.

A committee was formed to establish protocols for the health and safety of patients.

When he arrives in the palliative unit his water bowl is waiting.

"Everyone is happy to see him and he is so excited to go," said Koebner.

"It's a stressful environment and to have someone show up with love and kindness is great. Everyone wants their picture taken with him."