When Tammie Grabill and Petka enter Pullman Regional Hospital, they attract attention. Patients, staff and visitors immediately take notice of the woman with her bear-size dog.
After all, Black Russian Terriers, sometimes called Stalin's Dog, are rarely seen outside the former Soviet Union. Only in the last decade has the American Kennel Club accepted the guard dog breed into its registry.
Now, Tammie, a volunteer at the hospital, hopes she and her 130-pound canine companion will transcend novelty and offer a dose of healing through what scientists call the animal-human bond.
“He's kind of a serious guy,” Tammie said of Petka as he panted patiently. “He loves life, dealing with people and being a therapy dog.”
Kelly Sebold, a speech language pathologist at Pullman Regional Hospital, has teamed with her own dog, Lily, to bring Tammie, Petka and five other handler-dog teams together to form the nucleus of the fledgling Pullman Regional Hospital Pet Partner Program.
“We hope to become the hub of a wheel,” Kelly said, explaining how she plans to, not only introduce dogs and eventually other animals into the hospital scene, but also coordinate team visits to health care facilities throughout the Palouse.
Like Petka, all the dogs will be registered with the national Pet Partners organization, formerly known as Delta Society and linked here on the Palouse to one of its founders, the late Leo K. Bustad. A Washington State University professor of veterinary medicine, Bustad was heralded as one of the pioneers in the study of the human-animal bond, especially with dogs.
“For 35 years as Delta Society and now as Pet Partners, the organization remains focused on improving human health through positive interactions with therapy, service and companion animals,” reads the Pet Partners Web site.
That's exactly what Kelly, Tammie and others hope to bring to Pullman Regional – a program revolving around trained and tested dogs that are registered with Pet Partners. Such registration, Kelly said, ensures that a level of professional oversight, in addition to the animals' innate acumen for calm and support, will be brought to the healthcare scene.
“Petka and I have been working for two years to get him registered as a Pet Partners dog,” Tammie said. “He has gone through training and schooling, as did I, and he has been evaluated by a trained evaluator.” Petka, in fact, received a “complex” rating, the highest possible.
“Most people are immediately relieved to see an animal and they smile,” Kelly said of bringing dogs into the hospital. “Sometimes the patient might not be as responsive as a loved one who's sitting with them. A lot of times, patients want to talk about their pets at home or reminisce about a dog they used to have.”
Tammie, a veterinary technician working with oncology students at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, said her passion to become a therapy team with Petka stems from when her daughter Jessica had a life-threatening brain condition. She suddenly suffered from an acute buildup of cerebrospinal fluid. “We almost lost her. She spent 28 days at Yale University Hospital and had four brain surgeries,” Tammie recalled. “The doctors told me her condition was not conducive for life.”
About three weeks into the ordeal, Tammie noticed a woman walking in the hospital with a little service dog. “The dog's name was Dolly, and the lady picked her up and asked Jessica if she wanted to hold her,” Tammie said. “Jessica just grabbed that dog and finally she could have an emotional release. She cried and hugged and petted that dog for 20 minutes. And it was the most healing thing that could have happened to her in that hospital.”
Tammie's daughter recovered and is more evidence underscoring the value of the human-animal bond. Both psychological and physiological benefits have been documented and in general, research shows, many people are happier and healthier in the presence of animals.
“We ask permission before we go into a room at the hospital,” Kelly said. “Most people can relate to animals and say yes.”
Petka, said Tammie, has an uncanny knack for singling out the person in most need. Sometimes it's not a patient, but maybe a family member. The dog, wearing his yellow Pet Partners vest and identification credentials, simply sidles up to those in need and remains available.
“In one room we went into,” Tammie said of a recent visit to the hospital, “there was the wife in the bed and husband and son, I believe, and Petka spent equal time with everyone. He went over and sat down next to the bed so she could pet him. And then he decided that the husband also needed some comfort. This dog is kind of hard to explain. He goes to where he needs to be.”
In addition to Kelly and Lily, and Tammie and Petka, other Pullman Regional Hospital Pet Partners teams include Renee Piper and Enzo, Katrine Spilde and Enzo, Lee Fruits and Oscar, Debbie Bikfasy and Acorn, and Claudia and Mike Dambra and Birdie.