“We see little miracles all the time,” says Erin Rice, director of UCLA’s People-Animal Connection (PAC), when describing her animal-assisted therapy program, which connects dogs with pediatric and adult patients at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica.
Her most memorable experience was visiting a boy who had just had a hemispherectomy, a surgery in which half of the brain is removed. “We were taking [the boy’s] hand and petting [my dog] Finn,” Rice says, “and the mom started crying. She said [her son] knows how to sign ‘dog,’ and he just signed [it]! With a dog, you’re getting a totally different textile feeling, and synapses are firing.”
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of contact with animals on mental and physical health, from easing anxiety to lowering blood pressure. For children with autism, animals can help them with social interactions. “We’ve seen and heard so many stories where children on the spectrum are very responsive to dogs,” Rice says. “Situations where they’re not speaking, [but] they’ll start speaking with a dog there.”
Started in 1994, PAC has 75 teams of dogs and volunteers who participate in approximately 1,200 hospital visits a month. “Every visit is different,” Rice explains. “We see a variety of patient populations, and [visits can] last five minutes to two hours. It depends on what the patient and their family want.”
To ensure everyone’s safety, PAC works closely with the Infection Prevention Department. And the dogs have regular health screenings and are groomed before each visit.
PAC is currently working with Daniel Karlin M.D. ’12 and Jeannie Meyer, clinical nurse specialist for palliative care, to research the effects of animal-assisted therapy on palliative patients, measuring pain scales before and after a PAC visit.
Dogs “are able to help in different ways,” Rice says. They’re “lightening up what can be a very scary experience.”