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Animals bring happiness and health to patients

Desi, which is short for “Desirable,” spends much of her time in the hospital. But she isn’t sick; she goes there to help the patients. Desi helps not only the patients’ nerves about the doctor’s visit, but also helps doctors talk to the patients and creates a relaxed atmosphere.

Oh yeah, Desi is a dog.

In fact, she’s a “therapy dog,” said Karla Baker, who works alongside Desi in a pain management office. Desi comes to work everyday with no complaints, just a wagging tail, Baker said.

“Desi has been with us for more than three years. All of the patients love her, and she works real well with teenagers who don’t want to talk. They usually open up more when the dog is around,” Baker said.

Since 1976, Therapy Dogs International Inc., has been helping to register dogs to become working therapy dogs.

Not just any dog can be a therapy dog, though. The dog has to go through a rigorous test to prove to the instructors that it is not afraid of people or medical appliances–crutches, wheelchairs, etc. They cannot be vocal or show extreme nervousness, especially when the owner leaves the room. The in-depth process tests the body posture of the dog, eye contact and facial expression. The test ensures the dog is not aggressive and will not cause any harm to the patients.

“We have so many types of dogs that come and visit once a week. Anything from a miniature poodle, who helps with the hearing impaired patients, to a Great Dane, who is very shy but comes over and leans on the patients and cuddles with them,” said Norine Cohen, activity coordinator of the physical therapy unit at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

The dogs facilitate a happy doctor’s experience, Baker said.

“Dogs and patients bond. It is amazing to see their faces bright up when I bring her into the room along with laughter and happiness,” Baker said.

Desi helps provide a positive atmosphere when patients get bad news, Baker said.

Cohen said she feels that the patients have a special bond with the dogs. Some of the patients will whisper things in their ears and others will just cry, holding them.

Animal therapy can be used not only in doctor’s offices but also nursing homes, prisons or mental institutes.

“Desi has brightened people’s day, from children to elderly patients,” Baker said.

These special animals assist in occupational therapy, physical therapy, certified therapeutic recreation specialists and recreational therapy.

Cohen said that the dogs help lower the patients’ blood pressure and respiration rate. The dogs take their minds off of the pain, and it makes them recover faster because of an increase in positive feelings.

Shriner’s Hospital also uses pet therapy. According to its Web site, , “The dogs, through the special magic and the unconditional love and acceptance of ‘man’s best friend,’ help the children learn confidence, self-respect and a growing pleasure in focusing on their abilities, instead of on their limitations.”

Baker said Desi is like a doctor herself.

“She never goes a day without making someone laugh and feel better,” Baker said.

Information from the Delta Society was used in this story.