A healing paw
GREENWICH — Thomas Griffen wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Sterling.
The diligent golden retriever is trained as a medical alert service dog. He brings Griffen his glucose meter when an alarm goes off on a pump that’s connected to his master. And the pup once even served as a life-saving backup to medical equipment that failed to function properly.
It happened one night in June when the two went camping alone. Griffen said he awoke as Sterling was bringing him his glucose meter.
“I was really out of it,” he said. “Then ... he brings me the orange juice and he drops it on my chest. Now I’m beginning to wake up and I’m saying, ‘Why is he doing this?’
“I pull out my pump, because it usually sets up an alarm. The pump had not functioned, so it had not been giving me any insulin.”
Because Sterling woke up Griffen, he was able to test his sugar and use syringes to level his insulin.
“After two years, I think he’s associated when he smells a chemical change in my body, he brings me orange juice and he brings me the glucose meter,” he said.
Drawing upon their experiences with the health-care system, the team has begun to educate professionals about interacting with and accommodating service dogs through a new series of workshops.
On Thursday, Griffen and Sterling visited Greenwich Hospital and spoke to about 20 health-care professionals with other experts from Pace University’s College of Health Professions and the nonprofit Educated Canines Assisting With Disabilities.
“Some of the questions being asking at these workshops are fantastic questions because it’s based on their experiences,” Griffen said of the training at Greenwich Hospital. Health-care workers “don’t know what they should or should not be asking and how to respond” when patients bring in service animals, he said.
Thursday’s training was the second one of its kind as part of the Canines Assisting in Health program. It aims to teach health-care professionals how to interact with people who have service dogs — and how not to — in settings such as hospitals, medical facilities and doctor’s offices. It also gives health-care professionals more information about how service dogs can help people with certain disabilities.
The group talked about what to do if a patient who requires a service dog must stay overnight at the hospital, who is responsible for the dog’s care and how to respectfully determine if a dog is a legitimate service animal.
Two years ago, Pace launched the first college curriculum on service and therapy dogs in health care at its campus in Westchester County, N.Y. The program was inspired by conversations Pace professor Joanne Singleton had with late Iraq war veteran Luis Carlos Montalvan.
Singleton worked with the veteran and his service dog, Tuesday, to develop a curriculum — the first and only one of its kind in the country.
“It’s a critical conversation,” said Joanne Singleton, a Pace professor who founded the program. “It’s just astonishing how little health-care professionals know about helping people with disabilities.”
Service dogs can be an important part of a person’s plan of care, she said.
“They offer a non-pharmacological intervention for someone with a disability,” said Singleton. “They can mitigate many disabilities and there are many secondary benefits of having a service dog.”
Spirit, a 2-year-old golden retriever who serves as a professor at Pace alongside Singleton, attended the training on Thursday.
“Spirit educates people,” she said. “He also has a cape that he changes in to, and he works with me as a therapy dog.”
After he obediently stretched out under a table during the hourlong discussion, his teammate removed Spirit’s cape, which indicates when it’s time to work. Sterling was also allowed to slip out of his working attire.
The regal working dogs melted into a silly, happy pups ready to great all comers.
As a patient at Bridgeport Hospital, Griffen said he and Sterling have been welcomed by the staff.
“They’re prepared that he’s gonna be with me and they really treat him like a nurse is gonna treat a doctor or a doctor’s gonna treat a nurse,” said Griffen. “They view him as part of that team. And that makes me feel very relaxed.”