Across the country, many communities hold a special ceremony called the Blessing of Pets, conducted in remembrance of the Roman Catholic Church’s St. Francis of Assisi and his love for all creatures. A similar program was held this week at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. and among the animals blessed were dogs participating in the American Red Cross pet therapy program at the hospital.
Currently there are fourteen approved volunteer pet therapy teams of handlers and dogs visiting the military hospital to help patients. The dogs bring love and comfort to wounded and ill warriors undergoing treatment at the hospital. They help patients forget about their current circumstances and relax.
“We do what we can to help the warriors reconnect with daily (non-combat) living conditions,” said “Bear” (Darrell) Hummer, who developed the handbook for the program. “The dogs have proven to be great intermediaries between patients and staff.”
The pet therapy teams visit units such as behavioral health, physical medicine, general surgical, traumatic brain injury/post-traumatic stress injury and Wounded Warrior units.
“The patients generally respond very positively to the dogs by opening up and communicating,” Hummer reported. “The dogs also aren’t just for the patients. They are a great way for the hospital staff, many of whom see tragedy on a regular basis, to unwind. Doctors, nurses, administrators and technicians alike look forward to the dog visits.”
It takes a lot to become a therapy dog at Walter Reed. Any dog over one-year old is eligible. The handbook details what someone has to do to join the program. “They have to be an experienced therapy team; the dog and handler must have completed a minimum of 50 certified therapy visits, the handler has to complete Red Cross training, show proof of liability insurance, and then the team goes through three observed probationary visits,” Hummer said.
Teams make regular visits to the Walter Reed Bethesda facility on the first and third Tuesday of every month, with special visits in between if requested by Red Cross staff. The program has become well-known and military hospitals in other regions of the country are expressing interest in starting their own programs. The Red Cross pet therapy personnel at Bethesda are available and willing to offer assistance to other facilities in establishing such a program.
The pet therapy program at Walter Reed is part of the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program. Other SAF services include emergency communications, linking members of the Armed Forces with the families back home. The Red Cross provided 386,000 emergency communication services to over 137,000 military members and their families in 2011. The Red Cross SAF services also include access to financial assistance in partnership with military aid societies, as well as programs for the country’s veterans.