Dogs That Change Lives

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Dogs That Change Lives

"Heel" For Pet Therapy

Northridge Hospital pet therapy dogs spread a little canine affection at LAX
easing passenger anxiety. Hello humankindness.

While our dedicated hospital staff treats medical conditions, these four-legged friends care for our patients' souls and warm their hearts. A dose of puppy love is sometimes just what the doctor ordered.

A visit from a friendly dog can be just the right medicine. Consider the milestone a young patient made after receiving a visit from a pet therapy dog at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. A pediatric rehabilitation patient spoke for the first time since his injury when a pet therapy dog visited him.

Pets can easily invoke feelings of comfort, joy and playfulness -  a natural connection between dogs and humans, especially children. Perhaps that’s why Paws That Refresh, Northridge Hospital’s pet therapy program is such a success. Accompanied by its trained owner-volunteer, a pet therapy dog will visit most of the medical floors, twice daily, delivering unconditional love to the bedside of our patients.  

Take a look at "Molly to the Rescue" a short video that shows how our special volunteers care for our patients.

Paws That Refresh launched in 2000 as a small program with just one dog. Since then, it has blossomed into a full-fledged service thanks to co-coordinator Ginny Mills, who has run pet visitation programs at hospitals for about nine years.

Today, our program has more than a dozen dogs that dispense warm affection to patients five days-a-week. These dogs are no ordinary pets—the docile and affectionate animals have participated in special training before qualifying as a pet volunteer. All of them are certified therapy dogs by one of two organizations --- Therapy Dogs Inc. or the Delta Society, which require dogs to be well-trained, good-natured and enjoy attention.

A volunteer pet visitation program greatly contributes to the emotional and physical healing process. Pet therapy is proven to:

  • decrease blood pressure
  • ease pain or anxiety
  • improve both short- and long-term memory
  • encourage social interaction
  • enhance communication with healthcare providers
  • decrease stress
  • improve self-esteem and motivation
  • encourage stroke or traumatic brain injury patients to use their hands, take a walk or even speak

Howling About Pet Therapy Benefits

The volunteer-owners and their dogs must also adhere to strict infection prevention policies through consistent grooming before and after each trip to the hospital. During visits with patients, the dogs may sit or stand next to the bed or in a chair. And upon patient request, the dog can even sit on the bed with them once a separate sheet has been laid down.

Ginny who owns three of the dogs knows that the program provides benefits to patients who may be feeling lonely, depressed or anxious about their hospitalization. “We see patients instantly brighten up when the dog enters their room,” she affirms.

“I enjoy seeing the enthusiastic response from our patients. It gives them a glimpse of the outside world,” adds Mary Grim, Director of Volunteers. “Everyone has such a warm and positive reaction when they see these ambassadors of good cheer coming. The effect is transformational."


Pet visitation program is especially beneficial to pediatric patients who are often frightened by their hospitalization and may miss their own pet at home. In fact, pet therapy dogs can serve as a useful distraction when a reluctant pediatric patient must undergo medical testing. Recently, a nurse was having a difficult time taking a young patient’s blood pressure so she requested a pet therapy visit. “Petting the dog was a wonderful distraction for the young lad,” recalls Ginny. “I feel like we get as many blessings as we give when we bring the dogs to patients.”

Since pet therapy can be particularly advantageous for patients who have suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury, the Center for Rehabilitation Medicine provides inpatients with a special opportunity to interact with trained pets. Therapists use a weekly formalized pet therapy program to improve a patient’s memory, attention, verbal expression, and social interaction.

Visits from the four-legged friends can even encourage patients to use their hands to stroke their soft fur, take a walk or speak. “Pet therapy is especially beneficial to our patients with speech deficits,” explains Speech Therapist Allison Abramson, MS, CCC-SLP. “The pets engage these patients who are often uncommunicative or reserved, helping to facilitate speech. And, our patients will often remember the pets’ names, which is a great memory activity.” Allison also says the pet visitation provides a relaxed atmosphere for patients, making them more comfortable and more likely to interact with the therapists and each other.

Consider spinal cord injury patient Michael Lee, who owns a computer consulting business. During his lengthy stay, he began missing his own dogs, Gizmo and Cinnamon. When he received a visit from Molly, a vivacious Golden Retriever, he was thrilled. “Having the dogs visit brings me comfort and joy – the same joy my own dogs bring,” he says. “Seeing them makes me smile and I feel that sense of unconditional love that only animals can bring.”

John Alfenito, co-coordinator of Paws That Refresh, agrees, “The dog visits bring a sense of normalcy into an abnormal situation. When a dog visits a patient, it’s like being home for five minutes.” For more information call 818-885-8500, ext. 2782. Northridge Hospital also offers several other opportunities to volunteer throughout the facility.

For information on volunteer programs, please call 818-885-8500, ext. 2961.

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Northridge Hospital Medical Center
18300 Roscoe Blvd
Northridge, CA 91328
(818) 885-8500