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Facility dog helps rehabilitate patients with neurologic diagnoses

Apr. 11, 2019, 9:20 AM

Certified facility dog Norman and his handler, physical therapist Christina Durrough, PT, DPT, NCS, work with patient Marie Layne Cagle at the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences’ Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute. (photo by Steve Green)

by Kelsey Herbers

The Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences’ newest employee is a physical therapist — but he also has a wet nose and wagging tail.

Norman, a certified facility dog specially trained to help motivate and rehabilitate patients with neurologic diagnoses, began his work Jan. 28 after completing a rigorous, two-year training program. The Labrador-golden mix was taught more than 40 commands, including walking safely on a leash near assistive medical devices, retrieving items on demand and opening and closing doors and drawers.

At Vanderbilt, Norman assists patients with skills such as balancing while walking or standing. He can pass a soccer ball back and forth to practice coordination and pull a rope held by a patient who is sitting on a rolling stool to build core strength.

According to Christina Durrough, PT, DPT, NCS, a physical therapist in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences’ Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute and Norman’s handler, the dog’s presence instantly helps engage patients who may be otherwise uninterested in rehabilitative tasks.

“Instead of getting frustrated about being unable to do something, the patient all of the sudden feels like the center of somebody’s world, and they become much more engaged,” said Durrough, who noted that patients will walk farther when they hold Norman’s leash.

“Some of the exercises we do can seem arbitrary, and it’s hard to get the patient to understand how it carries over to everyday life. Involving Norman makes those tasks functional because the patient can see how they can engage with another being to complete a task.”

Marie Layne Cagle works on her coordination and balance with the help of facility dog Norman and Christina Durrough, PT, DPT, NCS.
Marie Layne Cagle works on her coordination and balance with the help of facility dog Norman and Christina Durrough, PT, DPT, NCS. (photo by Steve Green)

Norman was bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs free of charge to people with disabilities. Although the dogs are typically raised by volunteers until they’re old enough for professional training, Norman spent the first 18 months of his life in a prison in Tacoma, Washington, being trained by six inmates as a form of rehabilitation.

Following his life behind bars, Norman returned to Canine Companions’ headquarters in Santa Rosa, California, before being matched with Durrough, who underwent an extensive interview process, two weeks of full-time training, written tests and nightly homework to qualify for a facility dog.

After training, Durrough and Norman completed the nationally standardized public access test required for assistance dogs.

Although Vanderbilt has an extensive pet therapy program through its volunteer services, Norman is the first dog to be formally employed, and his training extends beyond the requirements of both therapy and emotional support animals.

“I hesitate to say this because I love my pet dog, Huck, so much, but Norman is pound-for-pound the best dog I’ve ever met,” said Durrough. “He’s universally loved by everyone in all settings. I’ll be walking on campus, and I’ll hear Norman’s name yelled by someone I’ve never met. When I’m walking around my neighborhood and he’s not wearing his vest, people stop and ask me about him. There’s something about him that draws people in.”

Durrough became interested in training a facility dog after watching patients light up when they interacted with assistance dogs owned by other patients. Norman has since become a popular member of the team, with many patients telling Durrough they came to therapy even when they didn’t feel up to it because they remembered Norman would be there.

“Christina is one of those employees who is always looking to improve services for our patients. She had this great idea to bring Norman on board and worked hard to make it happen. Everyone in the department is benefiting from this effort,” said Anne Marie Tharpe, PhD, chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences.

Norman works regular office hours and sees roughly eight patients per day. He spent his first week of paid time off exploring his new home of Nashville.

“I would’ve said this is my dream job before I got Norman, and now, I really can’t imagine it getting any better,” said Durrough. “I’m just so proud of him. He loves his job so much.”

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