A patient's best friend (with video)

Therapy dogs like Mukaluka Dirtypaws fill hospital with cheer

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



How do you unwind after a stressful day?

  • Exercise. 11%
  • Drink a glass of wine. 36%
  • Play with kids/grandkids/pets. 12%
  • Vent to spouse. 7%
  • Watch TV. 34%

89 total votes.

Therapy animals

Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs.

A therapy dog is trained to provide affection and comfort to any number of people. Its primary job is to allow unfamiliar people to make physical contact with it.

A therapy dog handler has no special rights to be accompanied by their therapy dog anywhere that dogs are not generally allowed.

A service dog is trained to assist a person who has a disability. Because these dogs are trained to perform specific tasks, they are often known by names associated with their task, such as guide dog, hearing dog and seizure alert dog.

In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a person with a disability generally has the right to be accompanied by their service dog anywhere the general public is allowed.

For more information about therapy animals and local training opportunities, visit the Pet Partners website, http://petpartners.org, or Peter Christensen's website, http://therapydoginfo.net

It's hard to miss Mukaluka Dirtypaws.

The dark-colored miniature schnauzer stands out as he walks the hallways at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center. But the volunteer badge — complete with picture — hanging from his bright blue collar indicates the 5-year-old pooch is there on business.

As Muka and his owner/handler, Peter Christensen, head toward the room of their guest, they pass waving nurses and smiling physicians.

In the room, Muka sits cautiously at the end of Bob Wenzel's bed. Slowly, he walks across the clean sheet covering Wenzel's lap and approaches the stranger. He inches his nose toward Wenzel's face, his black whiskers hovering near the Cougar man's cheek.

Then, he plops down next to Wenzel.

"Oh, pretty puppy," Wenzel coos as he strokes Muka's black fur.

"My Misty's blonde," he says, referring to his 3-year-old shih tzu.

Muka spends the next 10 minutes showing off. He waves and shakes. He jumps up and lies down. He says his prayers, dances and gives kisses.

Wenzel applauds and laughs as Muka moves through his routine. He praises the dog on his performance and thanks him for the show.

The visit came at the perfect time for Wenzel. He was preparing to undergo corrective surgery. A few weeks earlier, he had his left leg amputated.

"I needed a smile for the day," Wenzel said. "And that did it."

It's all in a day's work for Muka.

Or, rather, a day of volunteering.

Muka is a registered therapy dog. Twice a week, Muka and Christensen volunteer at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, visiting patients and lifting spirits.

Therapy dogs are pets trained to provide affection and comfort to people other than the owner. Therapy dogs and their handlers volunteer in a variety of service facilities, such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes.

Research has shown people derive physiological and psychological benefits from interactions with animals. Animal-assisted therapy has resulted in patients experiencing decreases in pain, respiratory rate and negative mood state and increases in perceived energy level, according to research.

Muka goes above and beyond what's required of therapy dogs, adding a circus routine to his visits. Therapy animals don't need to perform tricks to provide comfort, Christensen said.

"They don't need to do fancy tricks," he said. "They just need to love to be loved."

Christensen is a licensed therapy animal instructor for Pet Partners, a nonprofit program that trains and evaluates volunteers and their pets. Becoming a registered Pet Partners animal therapy team is pretty easy to do, he said.

The human handler is required to take a daylong course without their pooch. During the class, handlers learn how to proactively manage their dog and how to identify and decrease stress in the animal. They also learn about animal health, special needs of clients and facility health and safety codes.

After the class, the handler and dog go through an evaluation to ensure the team has the skills and aptitude to work as a therapy team.

Dogs are only required to complete six basic tasks: sit, stay, lie down, leave it, come when called and walk on a loose leash.

"For the dogs' side, it's basic obedience," Christensen said.

After the evaluation, therapy teams can register with Pet Partners and begin volunteering in facilities.

Muka and Christensen have volunteered at Legacy for about 21/2 years. They make personal visits to patient rooms and entertain family members in waiting rooms. Oftentimes, family members will encounter Muka in the hallways and request that he visit their loved ones.

Kate Williams, a nurse manager at Legacy, regularly sees Muka interacting with patients in various hospital units.

"When he comes in, it's a nice distraction from the difficulties associated with being hospitalized," she said. "He just boosts spirits and makes them happy."

Even the staff love the distraction Muka provides, she said.

"People are just happier after they've watched him," Williams said. "He makes them laugh."

Christensen said he and Muka get more out of the visits than they could ever give.

"What's really rewarding," he said, "is when you get the smile from someone who's not feeling well."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com