RECOVERY RX: BIT OF SLOBBER, SMILE AND WAG BEDSIDE DOG THERAPISTS SOOTHE HOSPITAL PATIENTS.
VALENCIA - The best medicine might just come with a cold nose and wagging tail.
Handlers in the Pet Therapy program at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital say ``You've made my day'' is a familiar refrain when they take their pooches to patient rooms, physical therapy suites and the emergency department.
``Good dog,'' patient Josie Dominguez said as she pet Laci, a 9-year-old golden retriever during a recent rehabilitation session.
Dominguez had suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left side; the motion of smoothing the dog's fur was exactly the kind of repetitive movement the doctor ordered.
``They make our jobs so much easier,'' said physical therapist Lori Senft. ``Dogs are a good motivating factor to get patients to do more. They distract them from thinking of their pain and change their attitude.''
Laci was clearly enjoying her work, her eyes narrowing and lips broadening into a canine smile.
``We have the therapy dogs here on campus at least once a week,'' said Maria Strmsek, volunteer coordinator for the hospital and liaison for the therapy program. ``We've even had them in intensive care; if the doctors think a patient will respond to the animal, they're there.''
Laci and Keesha, a 7-year-old English cocker spaniel with a glistening black coat and stubby tail that wags nonstop (``We call that her happy meter,'' said handler Darlene Fraschetti), are two of 11 dogs that work the hospital corridors.
``We find that the staff enjoys their visits as much as the patients do,'' Fraschetti said as a nurse scratched Keesha behind the ears. ``It's a stress reliever for them.''
Fraschetti had a special destination that afternoon: to spend some time with Colleen Faggiano, whose husband, Dan, had requested a visit.
As Fraschetti put Keesha on a clean towel next to the young woman, Colleen's eyes sparkled. Any pain from surgery she'd had the day before was forgotten - at least for the moment.
``What a blessing,'' she said, as she cupped Keesha's muzzle in her hand. ``You're so sweet.''
The Faggianos brought pictures of their own dog, Morgan, an 8-year-old golden retriever, to help Colleen stay focused and calm during and after the surgery.
``We're definitely dog people,'' Dan said as Laci joined the growing crowd around his wife's bed. Laci took a chair next to the bed, placing her paw near Colleen's hand and patiently waiting for a pet.
``Look at her, she's so well-behaved,'' Colleen said. ``You're a love bug.''
Laci's handler, Linda Provenzano, is an evaluator for Delta Society, a national group that provides the standards for therapy dogs across the country.
She said that any mixed-breed dog more than a year old could qualify for the program if it has the right disposition and can pass a series of tests that challenge attention and tolerance.
``They must be neutral dogs and resist the urge to run and play when they hear another dog. Of course, they have to be able to obey commands such as sit, come, stay and leave it when there are things on the ground,'' she explained.
``A lot has to do with the dog's aptitude. They have to be able to tolerate loud noises, getting bumped and not reacting, angry yelling because we might encounter that in a hospital setting and exuberant petting like they might experience in a crowd of children. They can't be bothered by things like that.''
The Faggianos were so impressed with the program that they asked how their dog might become a therapy dog after Colleen is back on her feet.
Provenzano recommended that they take Morgan to a grocery store parking lots and push shopping carts together - to get her used to loud noises - and to Starbucks, where a variety of dogs might be mingling on the patio.
``Once she (Colleen) is out of the hospital, we want to train our dog and make other people feel better like Laci and Keesha have done,'' Dan said.
According to the Delta Society, animals help individuals in a health care setting focus on their environment instead of their ailments. Tests have shown that the simple act of petting a dog can dramatically decrease heart rate and blood pressure.
Ultimately, owning a therapy dog is a serious commitment - all dogs are bathed once a week, their teeth professionally cleaned and they get a dry bath after each facility visit.
``I brush Keesha at least 20 minutes a day,'' Fraschetti said. ``But it's worth every minute when I see her and the patients so happy.''
For information on pet therapy animals, visit the Delta Society's Web site at www.deltasociety.org.
Carol Rock, (661) 257-5252
(1 -- color) Laci, a 9-year-old golden retriever, brings a smile to Colleen Faggiano at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital on Friday, a day after Faggiano had surgery.
(2) Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital patient Tom Purnell is greeted by Keesha, a 7-year-old English cocker spaniel, and her handler Darlene Fraschetti on Friday.
David Crane/Staff Photographer