By Kimberly K. Friedman, OD, FAAO
July 21, 2021
As many of us know, examining some patients can be more demanding than others. Specifically, patients with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, intellectual disabilities, or anxiety, can be a particular challenge. But a few years ago, I stumbled upon a trick that made these exams much more enjoyable.
Our service dog Penny!
Opening Patients’ Eyes (literally)
Bringing Penny to work with me started as serendipity. I was visiting my grandmother with my Boxer/Pit Bull mix, Penny, at the assisted living facility where she lives. My grandmother is a spry and healthy 103-year-old who lives in a facility where I also happen to do monthly eye examinations for people who cannot easily make it to our office. One day while I was there visiting my grandmother with my dog, the nurse at the facility asked me to stop by to examine a patient with a red swollen eye. I agreed, but told her I would need to take my dog with me.
The patient I went to see that day lived in the memory care portion of the facility. I had seen her several times before. She had dementia, and had developed a severe eye rubbing habit that led to chronic ocular issues. I had always found her to be unwilling to open her eyes for me or engage with me in any way. That all changed on that day when I happened to have Penny with me.
As I walked into her room, I found her typical demeanor and appearance. She sat in a wheelchair looking down at the floor. There was some gentle mumbling. I usually couldn’t even tell if the patient knew I was in the room. But this time she saw Penny and perked right up. She looked at me, smiled and started petting Penny and calling her the name of her childhood dog. It was the easiest, most pleasant, eye exam I had done in the memory care unit in a very long time!
Since I wasn’t sure if that was just a fluke, the next time I was scheduled to do eye exams there I brought Penny with me again. Same results! It was incredible. The patients were more interactive and the exams were much more pleasant.
Creating a Service Dog
It didn’t take long after that for me to get Penny certified as a service dog. While there are different levels of service dogs, and some require intensive training, Penny was already fairly well trained, so I only had to go through minor steps to get her certified as an emotional support animal (ESA).
Advanced service dogs are incredibly special animals with passionate, dedicated handlers. I do not want to imply that an ESA is at the same level of training as an advanced service dog. But this level of training and certification was right for me, my patients and Penny.
If you decide to bring a dog with you into a facility to see if the dog would make a good service animal, you will need the dog’s vaccination records, and you should check with that facility’s specific rules ahead of time to make sure animals are allowed to visit.
Making a Service Dog a Regular Part of My Office
After a while, I thought, if this works so well at the assisted living facility, how about using it in my own office? So, Penny started coming to the office. Not only did she become a favorite of patients and staff, she also became the star of our social media campaigns. Any photos that feature Penny in the office always become the most well-liked. On the days that Penny is not in the office, people are upset and disappointed that they missed her. She’s become quite the little celebrity!
She’s helpful to have in the exam room when working with patients who have dementia, intellectual disabilities and those adults and children who are anxious or scared.
But most of the time she is in the reception area. We keep her behind a large desk because we know that not everyone loves dogs the way we do. She only approaches patients after they have verbalized a desire to interact with her.
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A Big Morale Booster
Another big win is that Penny is our chief morale officer. The staff loves fighting over who gets to take her for a walk, and every staff member has a Penny treat jar at their desk.
If you have an interest in having a service dog in your office, I’d suggest giving it a try. It has certainly turned out to be a big win for our patients and work environment!