WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY
The Good Dog Foundation
When Pat Winchester was recently transplanted from Virginia with her husband, James, who was offered the job as chief of nephrology at New York City’s Beth Israel Medical Center, she quickly set about making herself useful in the Big Apple. With her good-natured, fluffy golden retriever, Dougal (as a Scot, she has given all her dogs Scottish names), she enrolled in The Good Dog Foundation training program to become a Good Dog Team, and within a matter of weeks, the pair had become certified to provide dog therapy services. Offered her choice of placements, she accepted assignment at Beth Israel Medical Center’s in-patient drug rehabilitation program, assisting addicted patients and families on the road to recovery from substance abuse to enhance their relapse prevention skills.
At first, the rehab patients were skeptical: “Half of them thought Dougal was a drug-sniffing dog,” joked Ms. Winchester, whose calm, unassuming manner, combined with Dougal’s docile nature, soon won over the patients’ hearts. “The dog gives them unconditional love. They don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations,” she added.
Ms. Winchester and Dougal are one of hundreds of human/dog teams who have been trained to provide therapy in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts since The Good Dog Foundation was created in 1998. Under the premise that every dog inherently has the power to heal, the nonprofit Good Dog provides a mandatory six-week training period devoted to instruction for both dogs and handlers during which adult volunteers learn not only to work therapeutically with their dog, but also to interact comfortably and confidently with all types of patient populations in a variety of situations. Dogs are trained, through positive reinforcement only, to hone their temperaments and gain the necessary mannerisms and skills to navigate a health care environment and become therapeutic agents.
The Good Dog Foundation was founded somewhat fortuitously by film and TV producer Rachel McPherson, who was doing research for a documentary that would feature therapy dogs when she realized that it was against the law to take dogs into a New York hospital. She promptly switched gears, pouring her energy into creating The Good Dog Foundation and successfully changing New York state law to allow therapy dogs into health care facilities. McPherson, along with her papillon, Fidel, subsequently helped to escort families of victims to Ground Zero in the days after 9/11, recalling, “I knew that therapy dogs would give the gift of unconditional love, which all of the traumatized family members so badly needed. Fidel helped people who couldn’t be consoled in any other way.” Good Dog’s highly regarded work at Ground Zero (the organization received awards from the ASPCA and the American Red Cross) led her to create a disaster response course for Good Dog volunteers, and shortly thereafter the Mississippi Department of Mental Health enlisted Good Dog teams to assist grieving families in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The program has gained strong paw-hold since its inception over a decade ago: currently more than 800 Good Dog volunteer teams work in over 200 facilities throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Volunteers have their choice of settings, which can include hospitals, schools, community facilities and disaster response sites. Autistic children as well as youngsters who are coping with bullying, learning disabilities, and illnesses show dramatic improvements after canine therapy, while human/dog volunteer teams help thousands of adults cope with AIDS, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer and depression. Indeed, Ms. Winchester has just embarked on a new initiative with Beth Israel cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, a 50 patient study investigating whether animal-assisted visits improve adherence, quality of life, and symptoms during patient treatment. “These patients are in dire situations. Sometimes their care feels de-humanizing,” explained Ms. Winchester. “[Dog therapy] is a way of escaping from the moment you’re in.”
To help spread the word about the healing powers of dog therapy, Ms. McPherson has just written a book, titled, Every Dog Has a Gift: True Stories of Dogs Who Bring Hope & Healing Into Our Lives. It’s about “the joy, healing, and love that blossoms when dogs and people interact.” #