Leaving Therapy To The Dogs

July 20, 2011
By Mike And Dawn Ebesu

Mike And Dawn Ebesu
Physical and occupational therapists at Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific

Where did you receive your schooling?

Mike: I received my physical therapy degree at Mount Saint Mary’s college in Los Angeles and my undergraduate degree at Pacific University in Oregon.

Dawn: I received my occupational therapy degree at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

How long have you been practicing?


Mike: I’ve been a physical therapist for eight years.

Dawn: I’ve been an occupational therapist for 12 years.

You both work with Simba, a therapy dog. Can you describe what he does at REHAB?

Mike: Simba serves several purposes here at the hospital, part of which is motivational. With our patients who may not want to attend therapy, we use him to interact with the patient. We’ll say, “Why don’t you come out and pet the dog?” When they do that, it encourages them to participate and get out of their room. We’ll say, “Let’s go find Simba!” which gets them up and walking. They’re not thinking of it as exercise, they’re thinking of it as “I’m having fun with the dog!”

We can also use Simba to encourage movement. If someone has a stroke, we encourage them to use their weakened hand more by petting or brushing Simba. It provides tactile input and encourages them to use their hand for physical recovery and movement.

Mike and Dawn Ebesu with Simba. Leah Friel photo .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Simba also helps patients gain movement through functional activities. For example, if you have a patient who needs to practice picking something up off the ground, it can get boring or repetitive. With Simba, it’s more interactive to have them pick the ball up from the ground and throw it for him to retrieve.

Does he mostly work with stroke patients?

Dawn: He sees all sorts of patients with different conditions including strokes, spinal cord injury, brain injury, orthopedic injury and amputees.

Does he also help with utilitarian things like service dogs do?

Dawn: We don’t usually have the patients give him commands.

Mike: But Simba has been trained to be a service dog, so he can retrieve items and push buttons to open doors, for example.

What kind of training did Simba receive to become a therapy dog?

Dawn: He was trained at Hawaii Canines for Independence on Maui. They were looking for somewhere to place Simba as a therapy dog, and we were looking for a therapy dog for REHAB. The dogs are very well-trained. They are selected from their litter based on temperament, then they go through rigorous training, learning more than 70 commands.

How long does the training last?

Dawn: The dogs do about one to two years of training. Hawaii Canines for Independence does training with the handlers for two weeks so that we can bond with the dog, learn how to say the commands correctly, how to praise him effectively, when to give treats and how to physically care for Simba. There were even written and handling tests and homework! We still have to do daily training with him to keep him learning. We’ve had Simba for four years now. He’s the first dog I’ve ever had, so now I’m spoiled for life because he is so well behaved.

Does Simba belong to you?

Mike: He technically belongs to Hawaii Canines for Independence he’s still their dog. He’s on loan to our hospital and as long as we work here, he comes home with us every day. When he reaches the retirement age of 10, then he becomes our dog.


How many patients does he work with on a daily basis?

Dawn: It varies according to the population and who we happen to have in the hospital at the time. He generally visits patients twice a day once in the morning and once in the afternoon. In between his visits, he’ll sometimes join us in our sessions. He is usually here five days a week.

How does Simba respond to the setting?

Mike: Once Simba has his working coat on he knows he’s supposed to be on his best behavior. He runs excitedly into the hospital every morning. The nice thing about REHAB is there are so many staff members who like dogs and they’re so excited to see him that he responds in return.

Dawn: He can be very patient, tolerating different behaviors and uncoordinated touching. He adapts to items that may excite other dogs, such as the tennis balls on walker legs, wheelchairs or unusual gait patterns or behaviors.

Is Simba the only therapy pet at the hospital?

Dawn: He’s the only one right now. They’re orienting a small dog so that people who are afraid of big dogs might be more open to visit the small dog. Even though Simba looks calm and mellow, there are still people who are intimidated by him. We respect that and we make sure that we steer clear of them.

Is there a goal with every session Simba attends?

Mike: Usually with the therapy sessions there is a goal, but there also are patients we’re just visiting. Everyone the patients interact with at the hospital it’s either the therapist telling you to exercise, or the nurses giving you shots and medication, or the doctors giving you information about your care Simba is the only one that comes in without an agenda. When he goes to visit patients once or twice a day, that’s what he’s doing, just going in to say hi. A lot of patients have pets at home. When they meet Simba, they start talking about their own pets, and it gets them to open up and feel comfortable talking to us.

Dawn: He brings out a lot of emotion in people. Some people are overjoyed. They see him and they cry because they miss their dog so much, so we have to be prepared for the wide range of emotions he can bring out. Simba lightens the mood of any room. It has been researched that the physical benefits of interacting with a dog are the lowering of blood pressure and stress levels, so it helps to have him in hospital situations.

Mike: He’s not only beneficial for the patients, but it’s also been great to have him around for the staff members. I can think of one therapist in particular

whenever she has a rough session, she’ll just pet him for a few minutes and it makes her feel better. As much as we probably take it for granted because we see him all the time, he helps people a lot. Even if it’s just for a few moments, he really brightens their day and makes them smile and think more positively.

Find this article at: http://www.midweek.com/content/columns/doctorinthehouse_article/leaving_therapy_to_the_dogs/