Boris is definitely a head turner as he traverses the halls of North Kansas City Hospital, and he relishes the attention.
According to his owner and trainer, Paul Decker, the 150-pound English mastiff was once petted by 45 different people during a one-hour visit. Boris is right at home socializing with everyone he sees.
A therapy dog, he is a gentle giant, says Karen Fournier of North Kansas City Hospital Outreach Services. His visits twice a month usually end in her office, where he has a big bowl of water. Fournier sits on the floor to hand feed him doggie treats — but only after he has completed his usual itinerary, which may include the oncology and rehab floors with detours to the surgical waiting rooms. Decker keeps him moving with edible rewards.
Boris likes to eat.
On a recent trip to the acute rehabilitation unit, the dog visited staff-selected patients as well as medical personnel who stopped to have a word with him in the hallway. Boris lumbers into a room and sidles up to the patient. His eyes are almost hidden amid all the wrinkles common to the mastiff breed, but he and the patient make eye contact. The patient reaches out to pat the dog and suddenly it is a mutual admiration society. Boris (named for the late actor Boris Karloff) loves it and the patient smiles, which is what it is all about.
“I see the good these dogs do,” said Ross Loria, a hospital volunteer who often accompanies therapy dogs on their rounds. In describing the power of the animals he jokes that he becomes invisible when he’s with them.
“‘Hi, Boris how are you?’ people ask,” Loria said. “And I say, ‘I’m fine, too. Thanks for asking.’ ”
Loria remembers patients such as a man with twisted limbs whose eyes lit up when a nurse helped him raise his hand to pet the dog. “It made his day,” Loria said.
A woman whose husband died while she was a patient in the hospital smiled for the first time in days during a visit from Boris. Then there was the patient who would not communicate with the staff until a therapy dog broke down her reserve. People in nursing homes are reminded of pets they had and they begin to talk about them.
Therapy animals — a category that includes cats, birds and other animals — are evaluated before they are certified as therapy pets.
Platte Pet Power is a program of the Platte County University of Missouri Extension Council. Pets for Life, a non-profit organization, also evaluates and certifies animals. Both agencies have lists of sites they work with that volunteers can choose to visit. They include hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other venues such as the Platte County board of Services for the Developmentally Disabled and teen and domestic violence centers.
The evaluation is rigorous and not all animals pass. Loria said his pets would not make the cut.
“They rough them up and intimidate them,” said Keith Kauer, whose two small dogs, a Maltese and a Maltese-Chihuahua, certified by Pets for Life, visit NorthCare Hospice patients twice a month.
Nursing homes are often the testing sites. Animals are exposed to loud noises, sudden movements and new people. Sometimes, examiners jump out at them from doorways and bang garbage cans together, Kauer said. The animals cannot flinch. They also are familiarized with wheelchairs, walkers and other equipment they might encounter.
Sharen Hunt of the Platte County University of Missouri Extension Council recently conducted a certification/evaluation with the aid of Northland veterinarian Billie Deam, who looks at the animals and their medical records, checking immunizations and other possible health issues.
“I started training Boris at eight weeks,” Decker said. “He had his Canine Good Citizenship certification at eight months.”
Boris is therapy certified by Platte Pet Power and Pet Partners, a national organization. Part of the training is socializing the dogs with puppy classes. Now, Decker says, Boris has to go out every two days to see and be with people or he’ll become a couch potato.
“He is a mama’s boy,” Decker said of the dog, who prefers to snuggle in bed with Paul’s wife, Darla, rather than Paul. And Boris provides her a four-legged heating pad when her back hurts.
Some of those who know the background of the breed are amazed at the docile dogs of today.
Mastiffs once were employed as gladiators and armored to be war dogs, Decker said. The only time Boris wears anything is when he carries a backpack full of candy canes to “his” patients.
Decker encourages other people to volunteer, too.
“I am only one person, one dog,” he said. “You can change the day being there just a couple of minutes.”