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University of Pittsburgh doctor touts value of pet therapy

| Sunday, June 12, 2011

As a physician and a researcher, Dr. Dawn A. Marcus was initially skeptical of the claims of benefits of therapy dogs.

Marcus, a neurologist and professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, emphasizes the value of the specially trained canines in a new book, "The Power of Wagging Tails: A Doctor's Guide to Dog Therapy and Healing."

The book includes references to the pet therapy program coordinated and directed by Pauline and Michael Glagola for the Residence at Hilltop assisted living community in Carroll Township.

"I've always been impressed by how social my Wheaten terrier is and how people seem to be drawn to him wherever we go," said Marcus, who joined the faculty at Pitt in 1990. "I'd never heard about therapy dogs until my veterinarian mentioned that Wheatie would make a terrific therapy dog. We were already taking classes, which we both enjoyed, so I thought extra training would be fun."

She also began reading about what people had said about therapy dogs and was "a little skeptical about how beneficial they could be," interacting with hospital patients and residents of personal care facilities.

"After passing our testing and attending a volunteer orientation at Animal Friends (Camp Horne Road, Pittsburgh), I continued to think that the coordinator's statements about the 'important work' these dogs do was likely overstated," Marcus said. "After all, dogs are cute and make you smile when you see them, but is there really any more to it than that?

"After a few visits (to patients), my skepticism began to fade and I began to wonder if the impact I thought my dog was making was really something or was I now seeing more than was really there," she continued. "Investigating the work that has been done evaluating therapy dog interactions from a scientific angle and talking with therapy dog handlers around the country convinced me that this work is very important to the health and well-being of many individuals."

Marcus developed "a passion for this work," trained her Wheaten terrier to also be a therapy dog, and "knew it was important to let others know about this important work."

Other dogs on the team

Lynn Matsick, activities director at The Residence at Hilltop, offers similar sentiments in talking about the Glagolas' nationally certified pet assisted therapy dogs - Sigmund, 8, a cocker spaniel, and Rocky, 12, a Burmese Mountain dog and Austrian Shepherd mix. They are often accompanied by Clyde, 4, a fluffy cat.

"Our residents' spirits always seem to be lifted when they know Pauline and Mike Glagolas are bringing their animals for a visit," Matsick said. "And, you should see the smiles on their faces when the dogs come through the front door. They (Glagolas) volunteer their time and their animals for many occasions and they provide a valuable service for the residents."

Pauline Glagola, whose dog Rocky is featured in photos in Marcus' new book, said her animals "have as much fun as the residents" during their visits.

"They sense that they're on a mission to bring joy into people's lives," she said. "They love the interaction with the residents and staff for Bow Wow Bingo and such other events as birthday parties. It's a wonderful feeling to know what they are doing and the gratitude extended to them."

Glagola also noted that Siggy is "back to work" at the Residence at Hilltop after being sidelined for a couple of months while recuperating from leg surgery.

"He's regained use of the leg and, more importantly, has renewed enthusiasm about getting in the car and riding to the Residence," she said.

She said The Power of Wagging Tails should be a "must read" for anyone not familiar with pet therapy programs.

"Dr. Marcus has authored other books about the importance of these animals in the healing process for humans," Glagola said. "They are very educational, offer an excellent insight into therapy dogs."

Christine Baloh, director of social services at Monongahela Valley Hospital, also has a therapy program in place with her English Springer Spaniel, Tommy. Like the Glagolas' animals, Tommy is certified by Therapy Dogs International.

"At first Tommy seemed a bit apprehensive in the hospital setting but he now walks down the halls and into the patients rooms with a lot of confidence," Baloh said. "I think he knows he is making someone's life a little brighter -- the patients and their families. As a social worker, I can see every day the benefits the Animal Assisted Therapy program at our hospital has to offer."

Baloh and Tommy also visit with students at the New Adventure Learning Center for young children that is located on the hospital campus.

"They love him and he loves being with them," Baloh said.

Marcus said medical research "proves that profound biological changes happen" when patients interact with a therapy dog.

"There are changes in stress hormones, immune factors and heart stress," she said. "These changes are important for facilitating better health and recovery."

She said The Power of Wagging Tails is designed to "present the science behind therapy dog work and benefits people get from interacting with their own companion dogs."

Marcus bases some of her findings on a career of about 20 years in pain management at Pitt.

"People with chronic pain usually have experienced a lot of life disruption and symptoms and 'just a pill' usually does little to make a dent in the problems caused by their pain," she said. "As a doctor, I often found that patients with a dog could be motivated to follow healthier lifestyle habits by encouraging them to use their dog as a 'canine personal trainer.' Research shows that dogs can help people with a wide range of medical conditions including chronic pain, autism, heart disease, psychological problems and more."

For the last several years Marcus' work has focused on pain research, especially investigating migraines and fibromyalgia.

"We recently began a study evaluating how a therapy dog might impact patients attending an outpatient pain clinic, with potential benefits for both the patients and staff."

"The Power of Wagging Tails" is available at most book stores, Amazon and Dr. Marcus' website, .

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