PHILADELPHIA — The newest member of the therapy team at Jefferson's Magee Rehabilitation Hospital has perfect windswept blonde hair, loves long walks through Rittenhouse Square, and is a proud member of ... the squirrel patrol?
Introducing Ford — an eight-year-old Golden Retriever. His job?
By offering friendly, non-judgmental companionship, he subtly encourages patients to keep doing what they need to do to recover.
"Ford is by far the most popular staff member in this hospital," laughs chief medical officer, Guy W. Fried, M.D. "He brings about smiles on everyone."
Nina Werner, a spinal cord injury patient from west of Reading, has been at Magee for over a month and works with Ford for two hours per week. A lifelong owner of golden retrievers, Werner says having Ford around during sessions provides her with added comfort and a motivational boost.
"I give him water, I've brushed his teeth, I've groomed him a little bit. With all of that, it helps me work with my hands, and without realizing that I'm in therapy because I focus on Ford," said Werner.
Patients come to Magee to regain the ability to perform everyday living tasks. "Whether it is physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy — he helps patients work on what their goals are in order to go home," said occupational therapist and co-handler Cate Dorr, who has owned Ford for five years.
Ford is part of a growing trend of using facility dogs to help patients at rehabilitation centers. Einstein Healthcare's MossRehab has its own full-time therapy canine, Seamus. Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J. is home to three — Pete arrived in 2007, Sherman two years later, and Rex in 2010.
"It is becoming more common," said Fried, who has practiced rehabilitation medicine at Magee for 27 years. "Facility dog programs deliver therapeutic services in another way."
Finding yourself unable to do things that you once took for granted can take a heavy mental toll, and patients may close themselves off and refuse to engage with doctors and hospital staff. But, Fried said, they often don't mind the companionship of an animal that is "not judgmental, or comparing them to what they used to be like, or staring at them."
Service dogs, such as guide dogs for the blind, receive tailored training to assist one person with his or her specific disability. Facility dogs like Ford, however, must be able to befriend everyone equally.
"A facility dog has to not be as monogamous (as a service dog)," occupational therapist and Ford's co-handler Christina Rinehimer said. "He has to go from patient to patient, and make everyone feel special."
And what about those who are allergic to dogs, or simply are not "dog people"?
Dorr and Rinehimer see to it that therapy sessions occur away from anyone who has an allergy or fear of dogs and make a point not to enter those patients' rooms with Ford in tow.
Rinehimer has been on a waiting list with Canine Companions for Independence — the largest non-profit provider of assistance dogs — for the last year-and-a-half hoping to bring a second facility dog to Magee. It isn't easy to find dogs with high skill level and calm temperament, hence the long wait. She says "a very low percentage" actually make the cut.
As a result, most facilities breed their own animals. Ford himself comes from a long line of service dogs, and used to be a stud dog at Dorr's former employer, the Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Because of his service background, Ford also shows patients the perks of owning an at-home assistance dog. He can open cabinet or refrigerator doors, retrieve items, pull manual wheelchairs, turn light switches on and off — to name just a few of more than 90 commands he knows.
As many patients grapple with feelings of sudden vulnerability and loss of independence, they often feel like a burden asking family members or caretakers for constant help. However, they don't feel it's a bother asking a dog to assist them, Fried notes.
The process of getting your own service dog, although typically free of charge, takes considerable time and effort. There's an extensive application and interview process, to make sure the potential owner is mentally and physically capable of caring for the animal. Once approved, a patient may spend a long time on a waiting list.
Support for Ford was provided by the Casey Feldman Memorial Foundation, set up by Casey's parents Joel Feldman and Dianne Anderson to honor their daughter, a dog lover who died at the age of 21 when struck by a distracted motorist. The foundation pays for the upkeep and supplies of having a facility dog, such as food and grooming costs.
Having a therapy dog not only benefits patients, it also helps hospital staff, Dorr says. "He has been a great stress relief and morale booster."
Staff members can be trained to take Ford on walks during lunchtime, motivating those who might not ordinarily take a break to play with Ford.
Spinal cord patient Werner came to Magee after doctors found an infectious cyst on her spinal cord, and the resulting surgery left her unable to walk or grasp objects. Now, after weeks of therapy, Werner has regained partial use of her hands and some movement in her legs.
She remains hopeful that with the help of her therapy team — and Ford — her condition will continue to improve. "Every couple of days, I see a little bit of improvement," she said. "I'm coming around, and hopefully I'll be walking one day again."