Tuesday, June 5, 2018

From kennel to showroom: Adolescents with epilepsy and rescue dogs create beneficial partnerships

The relationship between animals and humans is often based in loyalty, unconditional love and a good shake of the paw. A new program in the THRIVE Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) is proving just how beneficial that relationship can be not only for newly-adopted rescue dogs, but also for teens and young adults with epilepsy.


THRIVE Program participants train dogs
Clockwise: Cassidy Cudoni, Marilyn Fitzgerald and Nial Carney, all participants in the Doggonit: Epilepsy is Ruff program, train rescue dogs in basic commands, like sit and stay.

In the Doggonit: Epilepsy is Ruff Program, teens and young adults ages 12-22 are paired with dogs who have recently been adopted through Last Hope K9 Rescue. Twice a week, nine family volunteers from the Boston area bring their new four-legged family members to K9 Top Performance in Reading, Mass., where the adolescents help train them in basic skills, such as sit and stay. The THRIVE Program helps children and teens with epilepsy develop executive functioning skills, like building relationships, problem solving and planning and controlling emotions.

“There is a lot of research in children with epilepsy and how they often have a decreased quality of life,” said Amanda Tourjee, RN, MSN, PNP, director of the Doggonit: Epilepsy is Ruff Program and triage nurse in Pediatric Neurology. “In training the dogs, who give so much love unconditionally, the kids can work on their executive functioning skills and feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of their six weeks in the program.”


THRIVE Program participants train dogs
Samantha Alberino, a participant in the Doggonit: Epilepsy is Ruff program, trains a rescue dog.

In addition to learning basic commands, the dogs also learn a special trick, like jumping through a hoop. After six weeks, the teens, young adults and dogs show off their hard work in a dog show at K9 Top Performance. This year’s dog show is June 24 at K9 Top Performance.

Tourjee, who has always had an interest in human-animal relationships, was inspired to start the program after working with inmates who trained dogs as part of their rehabilitation. “In nursing school, I worked as part of a Puppies for Parole program and one of the inmates said it was the first time he had experienced unconditional love,” said Tourjee. “From there, I was sold on the idea that animals and humans can enrich each other’s lives.”

For the kids and dogs alike, working together often becomes a question of who saved who. “We’ve received feedback from the kids saying that because the dogs are rescues, they feel like they’re giving back,” said Robyn Bluestein, program manager of the THRIVE Program. “Dogs really do bring people together and know how to love selflessly.”

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