Lake Cumberland launches unique pet therapy program for patients, staff

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(L to R) Cassie with handler, Lawrence Underwood; Freedom with handler, Dr. Manoj Chandran

SOMERSET, Ky. (WTVQ/Press Release) – Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital has recently established a pet therapy program for patients and staff throughout the facility.

Cassie, a 19-month-old Red Merle Australian shepherd and Freedom, an 8-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, are the two new caring canines offering support and comfort to patients and staff on a regular basis.

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Cassie, a Certified Therapy Dog through KY-911 C.O.P.s. (Community Outreach Pups), has her Certificate of Excellence and badges for Service Dog and KY-K911 Soldier Saver. Her pet parents and handlers are Lawrence and Marsha Underwood who are both employees at LCRH. Freedom is a “facility dog” and is owned by Paws with Purpose (PwP), a 501c non-profit organization in Louisville, Kentucky that provides assistance dogs to many hospitals around the state. Facility dogs begin their training as early as 8 weeks of age and partner with a facilitator working in a health care, visitation, or education setting. Freedom’s handler is Dr. Manoj Chandran, a psychiatrist working with the behavioral health unit at LCRH.

Both Cassie and Freedom have gone through extensive training to obtain their individual titles as Animal Assist Therapy Dog (AAT) and Facility Dog. To even be considered, there are certain requirements that must be met related to the dog’s age, temperament, health, training and certifications. Lawrence and Dr. Chandran have also dedicated many hours and resources to their own training. Both handlers must keep up with certifications and evaluations on a regular basis and need to continually meet standards and regulations for the service dog industry.

“I was introduced to Animal-Assist Therapy while working at an equine alcohol and drug treatment program,” said Lawrence Underwood, M.Ed., a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor at LCRH. “I have seen firsthand what a difference an animal can make in someone’s life. Since Cassie has been coming to the hospital we have been met with range of positive emotions, from elation, smiles, joy and yes even happy tears!”

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are numerous scientifically proven benefits of pet therapy.   Having a pet around can offer improved mental, physical and emotional health and aid in lowering levels of stress, anxiety, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides. A dog’s ability to offer a calming presence and a sense of companionship has also been shown to help patients recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders. Hospital staff also benefit from pet therapy, as the animals can often neutralize work-related physical and emotional stressors.

“Our hospital staff has been extremely stressed over the past year and having Cassie visit has shown to improve the mood and morale of our team,” said Lawrence. “I often hear team members thanking and praising Cassie for making their day. I have always wanted to be able to help provide this type of service to our hospital and community and am glad it is finally a reality.”

Assistance dogs are used in a variety of healthcare settings including hospitals, nursing homes, and rehab facilities. For most, the biggest concern is safety and sanitation. However, stringent policies are in place at LCRH to ensure that the dogs are clean, vaccinated, highly trained, and adequately screened for appropriate behavior. Dogs are currently prohibited from the intensive care unit, as well as isolation rooms, the nursery and surgical rooms. While service animals are permitted within the facility, patient and personal pet visitation is determined on a case-by-case basis.

So what exactly do Cassie and Freedom do while on the clock? With oversight from their handlers, Cassie and Freedom make frequent trips to the hospital several times a week and spend time making visits to certain departments and staff. They are particularly popular with the older population of patients who greatly benefit from the companionship these dogs can provide. And just like any friendly canine, Cassie and Freedom love receiving pets and treats!

“When Freedom is around, patients on our behavioral health units feel a sense of comfort and unconditional love. She has an uncanny ability to ‘read’ the situation and adapt to our patients’ needs,” said Dr. Chandran.