First Year at New RUSH Program in the Books

Last October, Canine Therapy Corps piloted our newest animal-assisted therapy program at RUSH University Medical Center. This program focuses on adult inpatients undertaking a challenging road to recovery through the physical therapy process. Similar to our Swedish Covenant Hospital and Shirley Ryan AbilityLab programs, many of the patients working with our dogs have suffered strokes or paralysis, or are recovering from difficult surgeries.

It’s hard to believe our volunteer teams and program leaders have already spent a year motivating patients to voluntarily devote an extra hour each week pursuing their therapy goals. We could not have done it without the amazing support of RUSH’s staff, who have helped us improve the program every step of the way. “The animal-assisted therapy (AAT) program has provided many positive opportunities for our patients” says Mary Beth Busbey, Super Charge Nurse at RUSH. “The patients who have a special bond to their pets love to attend our program and to interact with the volunteers and their loving and kindhearted dogs. Patients voluntarily interact with the therapy dogs, spending about an hour in the gym. Patients are guided to learn commands and train with their canine partner to learn a variety of skills, increasing their endurance, working to increase upper extremity arm coordination and strength, mobility and speech.”

Patients are reporting a difference as well. Research conducted by RUSH during the program pilot showed patients reported statistically significant improvements in pain and anxiety after working with CTC’s therapy dogs. Participating in goal-directed activities with the dogs is actually resulting in the patients feeling less pain and anxiety. The power of the human-animal bond can have a truly dramatic impact on patients’ experiences with physical therapy. As one volunteer, Becky Bennett, put it, “[My therapy dog] Jae and I enjoy volunteering at RUSH because of the smiles we see each week from the patients, their families, and the staff! Many of the patients have not been home in many weeks and miss seeing their pet. The program gives them an opportunity to interact with a dog and work on their therapy in a fun environment!”

In addition to RUSH’s amazing staff, one of the other factors that has made this program so successful is undoubtedly the amazing volunteers who participate with their incredible therapy dogs each week. “Volunteering at CTC’s RUSH AAT program has been a positive and heartwarming experience for us” explain Gary and Sheila Hall, who volunteer in the program with their pug, Payton. “Not only are the patients very appreciative and responsive to this type of therapy, but the entire staff at RUSH are also gracious for our presence. All of the dogs who participate in the program are well-trained and work very hard in innately producing positive results for the patient and their families – physically, mentally, and spiritually. Accolades to RUSH and CTC for developing this innovative and holistic program.”

Grateful for the presence of a canine companion, patients respond to the therapy dog in a variety of ways. “One of our stroke patients who had not verbally spoken during her hospitalization was seen by our AAT team and began voicing sounds as her son held the dog for her to pet,” recalls Ms. Busby. “Many patients and families are very grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this extraordinary program.” As the Halls put it, “We find it amazing to see how patients work intently with the dogs. Some of them have never owned dogs, yet they are not timid to work through the program; some have dogs of their own that they have missed because of a lengthy recovery, and merely want to be with the dogs; and some just want to embrace the warmth and comfort of a lovable dog.”

It’s not just the patients who enjoy seeing the dogs, either—the staff benefits as well. “The staff who assist in this program reap the rewards of this positive experience” notes Ms. Busby. “We have also observed staff and team members coming out of their offices to have therapy themselves. [There are] always big smiles of appreciation for our canine friends.” In addition to seeing the therapy dogs while assisting with the AAT program, RUSH hosts monthly Pet Pause staff de-stress events, which Canine Therapy Corps has participated in for nearly three years. During these events, RUSH staff have the opportunity to visit with therapy dogs at mid-day to take a breather from their stressful jobs. RUSH has also conducted research during these events, which was published under the title “Pet Pause Reduces Workplace Stress: Researchers pioneer petting pooches to prevail over pressure”. “Early research indicates that interacting with pets may decrease blood pressure, lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and combat feelings of loneliness,” says Patricia Nedved, MSN, acting chief nursing officer at
RUSH, of the staff events. 

We cannot give enough thanks to the RUSH University Medical Center staff who helped us launch this program, or the amazing volunteer teams and program leaders who staff it each week. Without your help, we would not have been able to execute 28 animal-assisted physical therapy sessions at RUSH this year! We are excited to kick things off for another amazing year of AAT at RUSH in 2018.

Ann Davidson