One of the most popular employees at Magee is just two-and-a-half years old. No, he’s not a Doogie Howser, MD wunderkind. He’s a Labrador and Golden Retriever mix named Kentucky, and Team Magee has been planning for his arrival since before he was even born!
Kentucky is a Facility Dog who works at Magee alongside occupational therapist Kirsten Ondich. He is the third member of Magee’s Facility Dog Program, following in the paw-steps of Ford, who started the program in 2012, and Joey, who joined in 2013 and works with occupational therapist Christina Rinehimer, primarily at Magee Riverfront.
Facility Dogs are carefully bred and expertly trained dogs that partner with a facilitator in a professional setting like Magee to assist patients with achieving their therapy goals. Working side-by-side with trained professionals, Facility Dogs engage patients in sessions designed to improve functional outcomes, stimulate healing and recovery, and provide comfort and unconditional love.
Back in summer 2014, with the encouragement of her supervisor, Kirsten applied for a Facility Dog from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a non-profit organization with the mission to enhance the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. After a year of interviews, Kirsten made it onto the wait-list for a dog. A year after that, in September 2016, Kirsten got the call: “We have a dog for you!”
Kirsten and Kentucky trained together for two weeks at CCI’s facility in Medford, NY outside Long Island, but Kentucky had been training pretty much since he was born in October 2014. CCI breeds Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and a cross of the two to be assistance dogs. Puppies spend their first 18 months with volunteer puppy raisers who provide basic obedience training, socialization, and care. The next six-nine months is designated for intensive, advanced training.
In an emotional graduation ceremony, Kentucky’s volunteer puppy raiser, a student at the University of Delaware, handed Kirsten his leash. Kirsten and Kentucky returned to her Center City apartment on a Saturday, and he had his very first day on the job that Monday. Understandably, Kentucky turns a lot of heads as he walks through the halls of Magee.
“Patients just get so excited to see him! They want to hug him and pet him and love him,” Kirsten says. For a working dog, all that attention can be a bit distracting. “Licking has been a challenge!” Kirsten says.
To help keep Kentucky focused, Kirsten gave Team Magee clear instructions for how to interact with him in his first few months at work. Christina and Joey also helped by showing Kirsten and Kentucky some of their favorite activities. Then, it was time to set up co-treatment sessions with the other therapies at Magee, like Speech, Physical, and even Respiratory Therapy. One patient on a ventilator greatly improved his power wheelchair steering after sessions with Kentucky, because he wanted to be sure he not to hit him. His voicing commands also improved.
While many health care facilities may have animals visit with patients, these animals are generally handled by volunteers and are not used to help patients meet specific, planned treatment goals. Through Magee’s Facility Dog program, the treatment providers are health and human service professionals, not volunteers. Patients’ sessions with Kentucky, who is highly trained and educated, are goal-directed, and functional outcomes are measured, recorded, and documented. Kentucky knows more than 40 commands, all of which can be utilized during therapy.
The Facility Dog Program at Magee is generously supported by The Casey Feldman Foundation, Katie’s Fund, The Samuel P. Mandell Foundation, The Ruth Widmer Fund, Anapol Weiss Foundation, and by individual donors.