It's official. Health care is going to the dogs.
At Northwest Community Hospital, administrators have started training their 10th team of animal assisted therapy dogs and trainers -- just to keep up with demand.
At nearly the same time, officials at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge held a picnic to honor their therapy dogs and handlers, in celebration of just how valuable they have become in advancing patients' healing.
A highlight of the event was the dog talent show, in which pets demonstrated some of their talents that help light up patients' faces -- everything from playing musical instruments to bowling.
"Dogs can provide comfort, make patients feel better and also help them with their motor skills," says Magda Scanlan, manager of Lutheran General's volunteer services department.
At Northwest Community, a total of 15 new dogs -- and 18 handlers, including a husband and wife team, and a father and daughter duo -- spent two days training last weekend. The training will culminate Sunday, when they become certified by Therapy Dogs Inc.
The dogs ranged from an Airedale and golden retriever, to a variety of mixed breeds, including a goldendoodle and labradoodle.
That brings to 80 the number of dogs that Northwest Community utilizes in visiting nearly every unit in the hospital, as well as the immediate care center in Buffalo Grove, physical rehabilitation centers in Mount Prospect and Schaumburg, and outpatient center in Rolling Meadows.
With the number of dogs, and locations, Northwest Community has one of the largest animal-assisted therapy programs among suburban hospitals. Only Edward Hospital in Naperville has a larger program, with approximately 100 dogs in service.
"We've seen a total flip-flop," says Kathy King of Schaumburg, who leads Northwest Community's program. "It used to be, 'Why is that dog in the hospital?' Now, it's 'Where are the dogs?'"
Like the program at Lutheran General, dogs are being used increasingly in rehabilitation units, whether in physical, occupational or speech therapy.
Handlers at Northwest Community are trained in its Footprints Walking Program, which aims to get patients up and walking early and often in their hospitalization.
"When you're trying to get people up and moving, they're much more likely to walk with a dog," King adds.
At Lutheran General, employees see the same kinds of results, especially in pediatric rehabilitation.
"Children's smiles and giggles are my biggest reward," says Barbara Lulias of Morton Grove. She started Lutheran General's program nine years ago with her labradoodle, Sam, and now has two more dogs, Chloe and Marco, both Portuguese water dogs, who participate.
In all, Lutheran General has 34 dogs visiting patients in pediatrics, adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, oncology, adult rehabilitation, cardiac telemetry, surgical intermediate and telemetry care, medicine telemetry, neurology and stroke, and the hematology/oncology clinic.
At Northwest Community, about the only unit dogs don't visit is the adult emergency department. The units where King sees the biggest impact are in critical care and hospice, she says.
"That's where you get people to respond, who might not otherwise," King says. "The dogs provide a real highlight."