Friday, July 19, 2013

Canine companions: etiquette for working with patients with service dogs


DOG ABOUT TOWN: A service dog listens to the presentation.

“Service dogs are permitted to go anywhere the public is allowed to go,” said Rebecca Coburn, operations manager for MGH Police and Security. “It’s improper to ask, per the ADA, whether the dog is a service animal if its status is readily apparent.”

Coburn – who provided an overview of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and hospital policies about service animals – was one of several speakers at the “Me and My Dog: A Presentation on Service Dogs at the MGH.” Employees, patients and visitors packed the Thier Conference Room for the June 27 education session, sponsored by Disability Services at the Office for Patient Advocacy.

Coburn said it is important for staff to know several key details about patients with service dogs, including that not all service animals wear a vest when they are working and that service dogs assist individuals whose disability is not always evident. Also service dogs are always the responsibility of their handlers, Coburn added, and staff bear no responsibility to care for the animal while the handler is at the hospital. If a patient is unable to provide care for the animal, he or she is required to make arrangements for friends and family to do so.

During the presentation, John Moon, director of the National Education for Assistance Dogs Services, said service dogs begin training as early as 6 weeks of age and go through more than 18 months of training before they are assigned to an individual. “Service dogs are doing a special task for their partner,” Moon said, stressing that when a person encounters a service dog, it is best to ignore the animal. “If you want to say hello or otherwise interact with the dog, you must ask.”

Are service dogs and therapy dogs the same?
No. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as those individually trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. These dogs are given special access under the ADA to accompany their handlers in all areas where the public is allowed. Therapy dogs accompany their handlers to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other facilities to provide comfort to others. Therapy dogs do not have the same access privileges
as service dogs.

Does MGH have a therapy dog program?
Yes. The MGH Therapy Dog program, run by the Volunteer Department, has been in place since 2003. Therapy dogs visit 16 inpatient units, one intensive care unit and one radiation oncology unit each week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The program currently has 10 pet therapy dogs.

Guest speaker Janet Wallace, who has partial hearing loss, spoke about how her poodle, Dudley, alerts her when the alarm goes off in the morning, when she receives a call or text on her phone, or when the oven is preheated. In addition, she said Dudley accompanies her to doctor appointments. His jacket, which says “hearing dog” on it, prevents her from having to respond to too many questions, but she said she is open to talking about Dudley and how he helps her. “Most of the time, if you just ask a patient what will work for them and their dog, they will tell you,” she said.

Larry Brennan, a senior development officer in the MGH Development Office who uses a wheelchair and has limited hand use, said he too is open to discussing his service dog and how he can best work with medical caregivers. “The best advice I can give is to listen to what the patient says. If they say, ‘don’t touch the dog,’ then please don’t do that,” he said.

Service dogs bring individuals with disabilities a certain amount of independence, said Cathy Burke, from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Burke, who attended with her service dog, Captain, said it is helpful for caregivers to recognize that, when a patient is hospitalized, he or she loses a certain amount of independence because of their medical condition. This can be a very stressful on both the patient and the service dog – especially if the two are separated. “When I broke my leg and had to spend four months in a rehab center, I was unable to have my dog with me,” she said. “I was very depressed.”

For more information about the service animal policy at the MGH, call Zary Amirhosseini at 643-7148. 

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