Therapy dog provides healing power of fur

It’s a quiet Tuesday and I’m scheduled to meet Zadok, a beautiful eight-year-old Akita, in the front lobby of the Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas. When I arrive he’s already surrounded by admirers, so I wait for my turn. Zadok’s owner, Julie Burk from Damascus, has graciously allowed me to follow along as she and Zadok do what he loves best, visit with people.

I first met Zadok the night of the Rose Festival Starlight Parade. He was sitting with Julie on a float with a dozen other therapy dogs and their handlers. As he patiently waited for his turn to ride the two-mile parade route, my husband, son, and I were drawn to him. After only a short petting session our long walk to the car seemed a little lighter. I resolved to call Julie to see if I could find out first-hand what Zadok does for others. Little did I know I had encountered a true celebrity.

In 2008, Zadok was awarded the American Kennel Club’s Ace Award in the Therapy Dog division. In January of this year, Animal Planet sent a crew to Kaiser to film him in action.
According to Zadok’s business card, he’s a registered therapy dog affiliated with the Delta Society, Dove Lewis, and People and Animals Who Serve. Also certified with National Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, he visits local hospitals, a children’s facility, and prisons. He’s even traveled to Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University to provide emotional support to the students and faculty affected by the campus tragedies.

In layman’s terms, Zadok’s there when people need him.

As I stand and wait, I soon realize I haven’t been in a hospital for years. Needles, blood, and general body failures have always given me the creeps, and I now find my mouth dry and my knees weak. I begin to question if this interview is a good idea.

Before I can think to leave, the admirers are done and it’s my turn to introduce myself to Julie and Zadok. The 81-pound Akita walks over, pushes himself against me and lets me pet his soft newly-bathed fur. Then I squat down to get his signature treatment, a lick down one side of my face and up the other. On this day, I guess one of the first people who need Zadok’s three years of therapy experience is me. Suddenly I no longer care about my hospital anxiety. I would follow my new best friend anywhere.

According to Julie, Akitas aren’t generally thought of as therapy dogs. While one usually thinks of Labs, golden retrievers, and Shelties, she had therapy-dog plans for the eight-week-old ball of fur she brought home in 2001. She began to socialize and train him right away by introducing him to as many people, animals, and situations as possible.

“That way nothing is scary for them as they get older,” Julie explains.

By asking everyone she met to pet, feed and talk to the puppy, Julie taught Zadok that meeting new people is a great thing and that is precisely what works for therapy. Agility and obedience training, along with the intensive socialization, helped Zadok become the outgoing, well-mannered hospital dog he is today. And good genes helped.

Julie sensed Zadok’s natural gifts the first time she took him to a hospital. Understandably a bit nervous, when she and Zadok were motioned into a patient’s room and he promptly crawled under the privacy curtain and onto the bed, Julie was downright worried.

“It’s a dog! It’s a dog! It’s a dog!” she remembers hearing a surprised voice repeat.

Her heart pounded until the curtain opened and she saw the broad smile of the man behind it. Julie and Zadok have volunteered ever since.

They visit Kaiser about once a week. The day I follow along we stop on the oncology floor and at the ICU. About half the time, we ask patients if they’d like to pet Zadok and then we get out of the way to let the Akita do the rest. He nuzzles, licks, or just sits, concentrating on the person at hand.

While Zadok lies next to oncology patient Carol Gordon, she absent-mindedly pets him while speaking of her own dog and its recent trip to the Rose Garden without her. Similar scenarios play out, room after room. We hear about border collies, pit bulls, Jack Russels, even a tabby or two, all residing in the real world outside of the hospital. Zadok is the bridge to normalcy for patients confined to a bed.

One woman waiting outside the ICU sums up Zadok’s talents as a therapy dog nicely:

“Crappy day. You see a dog and you smile. He does his job well.”

Between patient visits we make frequent unexpected stops at nurses’ stations and the halls outside patient rooms, visiting with the hospital staff. Nurses, doctors, technicians, all get their chance to “ooh and aah” in high pitched voices and to take in Zadok’s goofy side.

“Everyone needs a little puppy love,” admits one nurse after Zadok nuzzles her cheek and presses into her legs.

“He’s good for my heart,” responds another.

I wonder how Julie knows who needs Zadok’s attention. She doesn’t take any credit for those decisions. Zadok seems to know who needs what.

She does confide to me in a whisper that the staff needs Zadok as much as the patients. She describes their meetings with Zadok, “as a chance to reset in a stressful job environment.”
Indeed, during the holiday season, he focuses his attention more on the staff, presumably to ease their anxiety of being away from family. At other times, patients are the focus, and Julie just follows Zadok’s lead.

After about two hours in the hospital, Julie and I give Zadok a well-deserved bathroom break as we chat a little more about what he does for people. It’s one of those conversations containing no hard facts, just genuine words of relief, peace, and thanks and the shared memories of the relaxed faces of those he’s touched.

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