Community Hospital Long Beach Launches New Pet Therapy Program

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BARK volunteers Linda Attardo and Guinness

BARK volunteers Linda Attardo and Guinness

For anyone that owns a pet it isn’t hard to understand how they provide their own form of therapy for us humans. They brighten your mood when you’re feeling down and relax you when you’re stressed. Not only can they do it for their owners, but they are capable of affecting animal lovers all around them. It is this understanding that brings pet therapy to many hospitals and institutions across the country.

On June 1, Community Hospital Long Beach (CHLB) introduced a new volunteer program that brings trained pet therapy dogs to the hospital, through an organization named BARK (Beach Animals Reading with Kids).

Based in Long Beach, BARK is an all-volunteer program that encourages children to increase their reading skills and self-confidence by reading aloud to certified therapy dogs. All BARK dogs are certified therapy dogs and receive training for hospital environments. These privately owned dogs undergo a rigorous certification process that involves countless hours of training and stringent testing requirements.

BARK dogs, and their handlers, are given ID badges, and the dogs are wearing their official BARK shirts for further security and identification.

The pet therapy program at CHLB serves as a distraction for patients and their families through relaxation and distraction techniques that often leave the patient and family more relaxed and offers them many forms of relief. The joy associated with a visit from a BARK animal has routinely led to patients reporting less stress and even less pain after the visit. All it takes for a patient of staff member to change their mood sometimes is a visit from a therapy dog. The simple act of petting an animal can create a lasting impression that will create a new outlook on a person’s day.

When asked why she felt such a strong need for a program like this McLoughlin shared a story that summed it all up.

“One day while walking through the hospital with a volunteer we were approached by an ICU nurse about a visit. She told us that there was a family she thought would benefit from the dog’s company. After asking the family if it was okay we went into the ICU and found out that this patient’s family had just made the decision to put her on hospice. Everyone was clustered around the bed crying, it had been a really hard day for them. When we brought the dog in, the whole mood changed. Everybody’s face lit up as we put the dog on the bed with the patient. The dog snuggled up to her, she was petting it, the family was petting it and during all this a family member comes up to me and says ‘We’ve been crying all day, but now these are tears of joy. This is just such a nice break for us.’ We weren’t there long, but it was long enough to give them a break from what was going on.”

During their visit, BARK dogs and their handlers visit patient waiting areas as well as individual rooms to see not only patients, but staff as well. “I emphasize with the volunteers that they are here just as much for the staff as they are for the patients,” says Mary Alice McLoughlin, Manager, Volunteer Services, CHLB. “I cannot even describe to you how many nurses, physicians and staff in general ask about visits. It’s a real stress reliever.”

The success of the program is dependent on volunteers. McLoughlin plans to expand the program to the MemorialCare Mental Health & Wellness Center in the future and is in the process of developing a strategy for this expansion.

“I get to see first-hand the power of these animals and what they can do for people. It truly is amazing.”

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