Type of dog:
Melbourne Health- Parkville Rehab
Since June 2011
Melbourne Health- Parkville Rehab
Since June 2011
Flash is our family dog, he calms and delights us with his affection and boundless energy. His breeder, Cloud Catcher Labradoodles told me about the Delta Society and Delta Therapy dogs. As a puppy we socialised him at every opportunity. His calm nature and intelligence suggested that he would be suited to therapy work. After progressing through his RSPCA Pet Dog Manners and Canine Good Citizen awards, he qualified as a Delta Therapy Dog.
Visit Day Rituals
On visit days Flash starts out with a run in the off lead park. A warm bath is followed by a thorough towel dry, his favourite part. There is much excited dashing up and down the passage with his Kong or ball. He settles soon after and falls into a deep sleep. Then he is ready and focussed for his hospital visit. I found this routine was important for his wellbeing as he was quite young when he started his therapy work.
I read with interest one therapy dog handler refers to it as ‘spa day’!
Flash is aware that important preparation is taking place as carrot or apple treats are sliced, occasionally roast chicken is used, which tops his favourite food chart. His harness and bandana are brought out of the cupboard and he bounds into the car.
When we arrive at the hospital Flash has an ability to alter his body language and behaviour according to who he is meeting. He changes gear, physically dropping his head and shoulders for a quiet, sick patient and raising it again and wagging his entire being for the energetic nurses.
Flash’s visits seem to help normalise the hospital experience for many patients who are missing their animals and home life. He changes the dynamics in the rehabilitation ward or the physiotherapy area by breaking down barriers and opening patients and visitors to express thoughts and feelings. Patients, visitors and staff enjoy the tactile experience of patting him and feeling his soft ‘wool’. People have very little reserve around him, his warm and open personality receives instant acceptance.
Patients often have very confronting and difficult times in rehab, with the pressure and stress of having to achieve goals in their individual rehab programs, and it’s really lovely when they are able to just relax and enjoy themselves, by socialising and interacting with Flash.
Sometimes I sit him on my lap so that patients can see him better. This often provokes smiles and laughter as this 19kg chocolate bear-like dog is totally relaxed and looks at them as if it is the most normal thing in the world. He doesn’t judge their appearance; he interacts with the patient, he sees past missing limbs, digits and other disabilities.
His portfolio of tricks includes: sit, shake, drop, drop and refuse food placed on his paws (he has to look away or he will be tempted to eat it) high five left/right/together, ‘Bang’ with a slow collapse and pause for effect, walk between the legs and bow for respect. With the patient’s permission I put his ‘treat’ into their hand. Almost all are thrilled by his soft, warm, wet mouth enthusiastically retrieving his apple or carrot. Hand sanitizer is offered afterwards.
There have been many positive encounters, no negative ones because I always ask permission to visit with the patients, visitors and staff. Some of the most memorable ones include:
A Stroke Patient
Flash and I had the most wonderful experience, a young woman was largely non-verbal and bed ridden after a stroke, her mother and her mother's friend were visiting her at the time. The family was losing hope in her recovery. When Flash interacted with her she started to smile and utter a few words of joy, her mother and friend were amazed as she had hardly said anything since the stroke. It was incredibly moving, her mother started to cry and her friend too. By witnessing the potential to regain speech it renewed hope in her recovery. It became clear that the benefits of Flash's work are far more wide ranging than immediate patient/therapy dog interaction. Lauren, a junior social worker witnessed the exchange and was very excited. I was thrilled because I really believed that Flash and I could make a big positive difference in peoples' lives and we certainly achieved that.
Heart Attack Patient
On another occasion we visited a heart attack patient who was accompanied by his wife (undergoing chemotherapy) and adult daughter. The atmosphere was quiet and sombre. Flash changed the dynamic in the ward with his energy and some of his best tricks, worried expressions turned to smiles.
Young double amputee
Flash befriended a young man who had lost his lower legs and some of his fingers in an accident and was in rehab for many months. Flash's presence was so important during the patient’s non-verbal communication phase. He was missing animals from home. He delighted in the therapy dog’s visits and they developed an important positive bond.
Recently we visited a patient in his twenties who had experienced a neurological event. He had limited speech and was in the rehab gym with his physiotherapist. I asked for permission to visit with the patient and received a broad smile as he registered Flash's presence.
I brought a chair over and lifted Flash onto my lap so they could see each other.
Flash sensed his affection and rewarded him with a lick on the side of the face.
His eyes opened widely and he responded with a broad smile and open mouth - sheer delight. I said "he likes you!" more smiles and quiet laughter.
A blind man’s experience
One of the patients was a blind man rolling down the corridor in his wheelchair (without his service dog). The nurse suggested that he feel Flash's feathery tail. The man's sense of touch was highly developed; he stroked the dog’s tail with great joy and thanked us for the experience.
Long lasting positive effects continue well after each visit
I was thrilled to learn of the benefits of the Delta therapy dog program pre and post visit
Liza Hall, the Social worker who established the Delta Therapy program at the RMH Rehabilitation ward at the Royal Park Campus said “I watched many patients, their families and staff respond with delight at Flash and Roz's visits through the Delta Therapy Dog Program. Photos displayed of Flash's visits also generated continuing patient and staff interest, anticipation and reminiscences of their own pets.”
I wasn’t aware until Liza enlightened me that following these visits, she was pleased to see patients’ moods lift and their desire and ability to communicate improve. She reported that visiting family and friends were able to benefit from his visits. Sometimes 'difficult conversations' were possible due to the transformative effects of a therapy dog visit. People were more relaxed. She felt this impacted positively on their rehabilitation stay and progress.
She also said that there had been improvements with a staff member who were previously uncomfortable with having a ‘dog' on the ward. Although they were not able to pat Flash they warmed to his presence and appreciated the benefits of having a ‘therapy dog’ coming to visit.
On a personal level Liza said “I always found it to be a happy time for me personally, when you both came to the ward, and I’m sure my mood improved when interacting with patients! I found I could communicate more easily and we could share the anticipation of the visits together. I also discovered quite a bit about patients’ backgrounds and lives, when we shared this common interest in animals…I didn't view it as a novelty but rather as an essential experience for the patients, families and ward staff, often with the potential for lasting benefits.”
Christine Cowan, Social worker, said that, “The patients and staff at the Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH) Royal Park Campus Rehabilitation Unit thoroughly enjoy and eagerly look forward to the fortnightly visits from Roz and Flash. The patients have varying health concerns and it is so beautiful to see their eyes light up when Flash walks into the room, and also the wonderful engagement that ensues. The Delta Therapy Dog program is a lovely initiative and an essential component of therapy for hospital inpatients.
After each visit, as the car rolls through the exit gate, Flash settles into his seat, secure in his harness and the knowledge that he has done a good and important job, within minutes he is sound asleep. Good boy Flash!
Flash demonstrated care and affection on many occasions as I juggled: family, working full time, studying for Master’s Degree and doing volunteer work. He was a comforting companion, ready for pats and play which allowed me time to refocus and also engage in regular exercise.
Flash is a wonderful, peaceful mate for my husband who has a ‘big job’ and occasionally works from home. He will interrupt from time to time for a game of ‘fetch the Kong’. His loyalty to his master is awe inspiring.
One of our sons studied year 12 in 2012. It was a delight to see him doing his homework with his right hand, Flash would give him a nudge and our son would pat Flash behind his chair with his left hand, such a calming influence for everyone. His results were outstanding. I’d like to think that Flash had a positive influence.
Our younger son plays junior footy, I’m grateful to the coaches who allowed Flash into the clubrooms throughout the season. I wanted him to become accustomed to a wide range of voices and ‘aromas’. He continues to support the team and goes on-field for quarter and three quarter time briefings, always ready to engage and offer support.
We are very grateful to many people who enable Flash and I to volunteer as a Therapy Dog team: Anne Cobham (previous coordinator) from the Delta Society in Melbourne, Liza Hall – Social Worker who established the Delta Therapy Dog program at Royal Melbourne Hospital Royal Park Campus Rehabilitation Unit and the social workers and staff who make us so welcome. To my manager who allows me to work flexible hours, our Vet who completes the Delta Hospital checks pro bono, Gribbles who carries out the pathology testing free of charge, thank you.