Magee Rehab's new facility dog makes even therapy fun

Grooming Kentucky helps patient Elizabeth Gomez strengthen her core. Kirsten Ondich, at left, is Kentucky's "facilitator." Looking on are Vielka DiPietro, Gomez's translator, and at right, physical therapist Deanna George at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.

Occupational therapy can be tedious, frustrating, and painful for spinal cord injury patients. Sometimes, it's hard for Kirsten Ondich, an occupational therapist at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, to get people to stick with the exercises that will help them recover.

On Thursday, she showed off her powerful new tool.  Decidedly low tech, her new 70-pound partner has four legs, a tail, and curious brown eyes.  Sometimes, she says, he's better at getting patients to move or talk than she is.  He always makes people smile.

Kentucky III, a yellow Labrador retriever and golden retriever mix, arrived at Magee in November.  He is a "facility dog," which is not to be confused with a therapy dog.  The latter tours hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions with the goal of perking people up emotionally. 

Kentucky is a working dog with two years of training with Canine Companions for Independence under his vest.  He can do plenty of the usual doggie tricks, like sitting, shaking hands, and emitting one polite bark when told to "speak."  He can also open doors, turn on lights, and take shoes and socks off. He can pick a credit card up off the floor.

Ondich, his "facilitator," uses him to motivate patients to move a little farther or longer than usual or practice their own speaking skills, which often suffer after serious injuries.

She put Kentucky through a few of his paces Thursday in a dog and pony show — minus the pony — for donors from the Casey Feldman and Anapol Weiss Foundations, who had brought a check to pay for her two-week training in Medford, N.Y., last year.  Anapol Weiss, a personal-injury law firm, is a longtime supporter of Magee.  Joel Feldman, a partner at Anapol Weiss, and his wife, Dianne Anderson, started the Casey Feldman Foundation after their daughter was killed by a distracted driver.  They funded Magee's facility dog program because Casey was an animal lover.  The foundations gave Magee a check for $6,750 Thursday.

Though Magee supported her application for a facility dog, Ondich is Kentucky's official owner.  He goes home to her Center City apartment every night and walks to work with her each morning.  He is Magee's third facility dog.  The first was retired.  The second, Joey, works at an outpatient office, though she makes monthly visits to the inpatient hospital.

Ondich showed what Kentucky can do with Elizabeth Gomez, a 23-year-old Camden woman who suffered a spinal cord injury in a shooting. Gomez was learning to sit forward and then move back, a skill that will eventually help her transfer from a wheelchair to another seat.  Her face brightened as soon as she saw Kentucky, who calmly sat in a chair while she brushed his back. He obviously had a better time when they played fetch, sometimes catching a tennis ball on the fly or after a bounce.

As physical therapist Deanna George braced her, Gomez leaned forward to reach Kentucky, over and over, with no obvious signs of fatigue.  Normally, George said, her patient would need a break after two or three repetitions.  "That's the most reaching she's ever been able to do," she said after the demonstration.  

Kentucky can help patients get stronger, practice fine motor skills — even improve their breathing and speaking.

One of Ondich's patients is capable of talking while on a breathing machine, but is "really only motivated" to do so with Kentucky.  One dog breeder, who was having trouble getting words out after a stroke, spoke fluidly about Kentucky's canine attributes.  "I've had patients talk for the first time with a speaking valve just because they wanted to talk with him," she said.

Some patients love brushing Kentucky's teeth with poultry-flavored toothpaste.   Giving him commands can exercise lungs and brains — and the dog's quick responses makes the exercises gratifying. "They like to see results," Ondich said.

One patient didn't like to do the hip-stretching exercises she needed — until Ondich hit on the idea of having her play tug with Kentucky.

Hide and seek, a useful tool for memory training, is more fun when a dog is opening the doors for you.  Ondich even got Kentucky to deliver playing cards to one patient who was playing a game of War.

The dog, she said, "surprises me every day."