Loretta Tibor knew she had something special when she took her dog Kiska to his first obedience class. The little white bichon calmly and methodically greeted every person to enter the room. Even the trainer was impressed, Tibor said.
Fast forward 10 years, and Kiska continues those greetings as a PAWS team at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Turns out that gentle nature makes him the perfect dog to offer love and affection to patients young, old and in-between. As part of the Pet Assisted Wellness Services (PAWS) program, Kiska is one of a select handful of dogs to spread cheer to those facing medical challenges. With 14 teams, PAWS provides animal assisted interactions to the pediatric unit, mental health groups and other adult inpatient units, including medical oncology.
PAWS is one of more than 40 volunteer programs that is supported in part by Providence Health & Services Alaska. The volunteer department at Providence Alaska Medical Center leads a team of more than 300 active volunteers who gave some 40,000 hours of their time last year to provide assistance to patients, visitors and caregivers at Providence facilities throughout Anchorage. That volunteer time equates to roughly 19 fulltime equivalents, said Tracy O’Connor, senior manager of Volunteer Services in Anchorage.
“Our PAWS teams go through an extensive onboarding process to ensure that not only their demeanor is appropriate but that they are safe in our hospital environment. A requirement to volunteer, teams must be registered with a national pet program that includes handler education and canine evaluation.,” O’Connor said. “They have to be able to pass other dogs, no barking, and know commands like ‘leave it.’ They have diet requirements and grooming requirements too. It can take well over two to three months for teams to get ready, both the handler and the dog.”
Kiska visits the pediatric unit one afternoon, accompanied by Tibor, who has been volunteering at the hospital for years. The pair enters the room of 10-year-old Lauren Guice, who was admitted to the hospital a week prior. She’s shy but interested in Kiska, who walks right up to the girl’s bed and looks soulfully into her eyes. Lauren watches the small dog carefully and then slowly reaches out her hand for a tentative pat. Kiska responds with gentle enthusiasm and keeps his eyes trained on the girl. Lauren’s mother, Erica, watches from a couch nearby.
“She has a dog at home, Lennox,” Erica Guice says. “He keeps looking for Lauren at home; he has definitely noticed she’s not around.
“So this,” she says, nodding toward Kiska, “is good.”
In the next room, toddler Michael Coate lights up at the sight of Kiska entering his room. Nurses have to contain him in his raised crib to keep him from climbing out to greet the little dog. Tibor hoists Kiska up to the boy’s eye level, where he promptly reaches out to stroke the dog’s small muzzle then leans in for a kiss.
“We don’t have a dog at home, but he loves dogs,” says his mother, Lacie Coate.
Kiska is a regular in the pediatric unit, Tibor said. She also has Casper, another bichon and PAWS dog who is better suited to visit with the patients in a group setting on the mental health unit.
“Each of our dogs has their own strengths, O’Connor says. “We work closely with our volunteer handlers to carefully assign them to the unit where they may be able to make the most impact.”
According to Pet Partners, a national nonprofit through which all of Providence’s PAWS team are registered, the human-animal bond has proven remarkable. Humans’ exposure to animals can reduce stress levels and blood pressure, decrease perceived levels of pain, lessen fear or anxiety and improve recovery rates.
“Our goal for our volunteer PAWS teams is that they are able to make meaningful connections through the human-animal bond and our hope is that this will perhaps even reduce the need for costly medical interventions, which can be beneficial to everyone,” O’Connor added.
Kiska’s last visit of the day is to Constance Polk, an 11-year-old from Bethel. Her father, Warren, watches as the girl’s eyes go from sleepy and bored, to excited and happy – she climbs across the bed and puts her hands out to stroke Kiska’s curly white fur. Tibor shows Constance the tricks Kiska can do in exchange for a small treat.
It is these types of visit that makes the PAWS program so worthwhile, O’Connor said.
“We are extremely thankful to be able to support the PAWS program and grateful to our PAWS teams that choose to give their time to come to our hospital to make connections with our Providence patients, visitors and caregiver; it’s really beautiful when you get to see it.”
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