PLATTSBURGH — Shoshi Satloff and her black lab, Bailey, work as a team to bring a little sunshine to patients at CVPH Medical Center.
Actually, it's Bailey who has been grabbing most of the patients' attention.
The 4-year-old lab is trained in pet therapy and shares her big, brown eyes and wagging tail with any patient who'd like to spend time with her.
"She's here to provide comfort and joy," Satloff said as she and Bailey took a break from their duties recently.
Satloff is a certified pet-therapy trainer who volunteers her time as part of a blossoming CVPH Pet Therapy Program. She and Bailey visit the hospital weekly to spread the positive feelings that pet-therapy dogs seem to do naturally.
"Quite often, patients will have pets at home that they are missing," Satloff said. "They're very glad to spend a little time with a therapy dog.
"It's always so rewarding to see their expressions when Bailey enters the room."
Satloff remembers one patient she recently met, a "burly man," as she described him, who broke into tears as he gently petted his canine visitor.
"'I just miss my dog so much,'" the patient told Satloff as he thanked her for allowing him to spend a few minutes with Bailey.
"It's heart-warming," she said of her experience as a pet-therapy volunteer. "It's great when you see not only the patients, but the staff and the doctors all taking an interest when we come into their area."
The pet-therapy program at CVPH began more than a year ago as a pilot study in the hospital's oncology wing, R-5.
With overwhelming success, the program then expanded to include patient floors on R-6 and R-7 and now includes other areas, such as the surgical waiting room and the main lobby, where dogs and their owners can mingle with any visitors who may need a little comforting.
"We've had to go very slowly," said Cindie Gardner, vice president of patient services at CVPH. "We didn't have enough handlers to do all three units and had to wait to expand the program until we recruited more volunteers."
'patients light up'
The pets can spend between an hour and two visiting patients. Their responsibilities are very demanding, and they become tired if they stay on the job too long.
But the service they provide while on duty has proven worth the effort.
"The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive," Gardner said. "Some of our patients have said the visit the therapy pets was the best part of the whole day. You can see patients light up when the dogs come into their rooms."
It is a completely voluntary program. Pets have to be invited into a patient's room and will follow a patient's wishes to stay seated on the floor or jump up onto a lap or the bed for a little extra affection.
"She reacts differently to every single patient," Satloff said of Bailey. "I don't know what it is she senses about individuals, but she knows when to approach someone gingerly and when to rush to embrace them."
Satloff recalled one time when Bailey uncharacteristically pulled her into a patient room, climbed up onto the bed and lay down on the patient's belly.
Satloff apologized and asked if the patient wanted them to leave, but the patient said no, she wanted Bailey to stay put. The patient explained that she was battling stomach cancer, and the pressure from Bailey lying on her was alleviating her discomfort.
"You wonder, what do they know, what do they smell, what do they feel—" Satloff said of a dog's ability to sense a person's needs.
The therapy pets' efforts are becoming so appreciated at the hospital that doctors have begun asking for pets to visit their patients as part of their care.
The hospital is also considering expanding the program to the Behavioral Health wing, but Gardner said more certified handlers will be needed first.
All dogs participating in the program must be trained by a certified handler and must be healthy, with all appropriate shots updated.
Bailey, whom Satloff initially trained as a seeing-eye dog, went through extensive training. She spent a lot of time where Satloff teaches, at Westport Central School, learning how to behave in busy settings and with lots of people wanting to pet her.
That training prepared her to meet patients through the CVPH Pet- Therapy Program.
"The peace these dogs bring to our patients is priceless," Gardner said. "It's 15 to 20 minutes that the patients forget where they are. It's truly incredible."
E-mail Jeff Meyers at: email@example.com