Help for the "Dog Days" of Cancer
Written by Rebecca Budde • Photography by Jason Johnson
Darby, 5, and Shamus, 6, scamper into Simmons Cancer Institute (SCI) with Dan Austif of Springfield at their sides. The three happily greet the volunteers at the front desk. They’re ready to begin their therapy.
Unlike many of those who come to SCI, however, they will not be receiving therapy; rather, they will be providing it. Adair Shamus Mac Gee Wow and Adair Little Girl Darby are certified therapy dogs used to help patients cope and recover from health issues.
Animal therapy is used in many settings, and studies have shown benefits to the patient such as reduced blood pressure and elevated mood. Especially popular with the elderly in long-term care facilities, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and pediatric patients, dogs, cats, rabbits and even horses provide immeasurable health benefits.
Diagnosed with PTSD, Austif knows the benefits of animal therapy for those with health problems. He says that his dog, Chy, saved his life. "When he passed, a part of me passed, too," Austif says. After a few months, he was ready for a new companion and bought Shamus. Four Shetland Sheepdogs now keep him company at home — Shamus, Darby, Shannon and Radar. "They’re the loves of my life," says Austif, who grooms the dogs daily and even had an addition built onto his house for them. Though Shannon is not certified as a therapy dog at this time, together, the four dogs have 34 obedience titles.
Austif trained his dogs under trainer Susan Poludniak. The rigorous training is more than just "sit" and "stay" for the dogs. To be certified animal therapy dogs, they must be able to complete certain obedience tasks such as sitting in a spot and staying without barking, whining or pulling while the owner leaves the room. The dogs are trained to remain calm in the tense circumstances they may encounter in medical settings, such as wheelchairs, stretchers, canes and walkers passing or someone collapsing from a heart attack or seizure. "Some dogs look at new situations and react," Poludniak says. "Therapy dogs adapt easily to chaotic circumstances."
Poludniak’s sable-coated, six-year-old German Shepherd, Rogan, is also a therapy dog. Together, the two make regular visits to patients at SCI, residents and staff at St. Joseph’s home and children and counselors at the United Cerebral Palsy camp. "Rogan is very environmentally stable," Poludniak says of the dog’s ability to be calm and loving around all ages of people in various surroundings.
"Pet therapy benefits patients, their families and caregivers," says K. Thomas Robbins, M.D., director of Simmons Cancer Institute at SIU, professor of surgery and Simmons Chair of Excellence in Oncology. "These special animals offer a distraction from illness and treatment and provide a lot of smiles for all of us."
In the infusion room, patient Dora Hayes immediately lights up as Shamus and Darby come in. Hayes smiles and shares stories of her dog, Precious Baby Cheeks, and how much she enjoyed Darby’s last visit. Similarly, many people at SCI have stories of their four-legged friends as Rogan greets them with a soft nuzzle or lick on the hand.
As Austif and Poludniak lead their dogs through SCI, the dogs obediently wait as others pass through the doors before they do. Volunteers, staff members, nurses, patients and physicians see them coming, immediately smile and "ohhh and ahhh" at the pups. "Seeing the dogs is just as good for the staff as it is for the patients," says Cindy Davidsmeyer, SCI director of community support.
On their way out of SCI, a couple stops to say hello to Rogan. Squatting at his level, the elderly gentleman scratches him under his chin, his favorite spot, according to Poludniak. Rogan gives him a quick lick on the cheek. The wife pats Rogan, laughs and tells him, "Thank you for making people feel better. I hope we see you next time."