Pat Carlson, co-chair of the
pet visitation program at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, got her start as you would
expect—as a dog owner. She began with the program 15 years ago simply
by visiting Torrance Memorial patients with her pet.
“I had no background, other than owning dogs,” says Carlson.
“And as you know, you are never an expert, as every dog is different.”
As the program evolved, Carlson decided she’d like to have a larger
role. Now she, along with co-chairperson NorLu Longtin, oversees the program.
Carlson is in charge of volunteer (both furry and human) training. “One
continuous teacher provides more solidity in the training of the dogs
and human volunteers,” she says.
To be part of the pet visitation program, dogs must pass stringent obedience
training and be at least 2 years old. After dogs complete one to two obedience
trainings, they can visit the hospital with their owners and be assessed
by Carlson and Longtin. After an interview that lasts around 45 minutes
to an hour, Carlson takes the dog for a test run by observing how the
dog interacts with Torrance Memorial employees.
“We have those people pet the dog, put it on their lap and get on
the floor with them. Then I can better judge the dog and how calm it is.
Does it look at the person? Does it interact?” says Carlson. “It
is not enough to bring Rover [to see a patient] and have Rover look away
or try to find the door. The dog has to give the patient attention and
eye contact. Many of the patients the dogs visit are under medication
and can be very sensitive. If a dog rejects you, it feels terrible.”
If the dog passes Carlson’s tests, the owner must provide information
from the dog’s veterinarian. Next, the owner attends the general
hospital volunteer orientation and initial training conducted by the Volunteer
Services department. The last step is for the dog and owner to complete
roughly 13 hours of training plus supervised practice shifts before they
can volunteer on their own.
Carlson hopes to grow the program in order to have an even greater impact
on patients at Torrance Memorial. She currently oversees 25 canine volunteers
and would like to recruit a few more so the numbers don’t dip when
older dogs retire.
Not all dog breeds are right for the job. To be a part of the pet visitation
program, dogs must have a “happy face,” meaning that even
at rest they look amiable. According to Carlson, the most popular pet
visitation breed is golden retriever.
Dogs must be easy-going and friendly with strangers. “I have failed
two of my own dogs!” says Carlson. “I have a perfect, 9-pound
male Maltese who just loves everyone when we are at home. When I brought
him to the hospital as a possible volunteer, he was absolutely terrified.”
This is a very common scenario, she says. “Because of the special
qualities required, we turn away almost 75% of those dogs who apply, either
to get additional training or because they are just not suited for our
Volunteers must follow a lot of protocol—and for good reason. Many
patients are not dog people and are therefore not visited, and even those
who are dog people have circumstances that change daily.
Infection control is another big concern, so dogs must be groomed each
time they volunteer, and everyone must sanitize his or her hands before
and after touching a dog. Pet visitation is restricted in the burn unit,
labor and delivery, and ICU.
Pets visit as long as a patient wants them to. One patient, a woman visiting
the area from New York on business, was in an accident while riding in
a taxicab. She suffered several bone fractures and was at Torrance Memorial
for an extended stay to recover from her injuries. Her husband could not
visit her from New York because he was caring for their children. According
to Carlson, the patient was visited five times a week by dogs from the
pet visitation program at the patient’s request.
“This woman literally had no one with her during this difficult time
other than hospital staff and volunteers. The pet visitation program was
the highlight of her day and kept her spirits up. We would visit at 2
p.m., and this patient would be ready and waiting at 1:30. That is the
impact the pet visitation program can have,” says Carlson.