NYU Winthrop’s pet project is all heart (and fur)

Pet scan: More than a quick lick for the sick, NYU Winthrop's new animal-therapy program is meant to round out a holistic healthcare approach.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

The newest therapists at NYU Winthrop Hospital don’t have advanced degrees. Or any degrees. You’re lucky if they have pedigrees.

But they are, indisputably, love doctors – poodles and doodles and other furry friends gifted with big hearts and healing hands (or at least therapeutic paws).

The Mineola-based affiliate of the NYU Langone Health system is barking loudly about WAGS, for Winthrop’s Animals Give Support, a new pet-therapy program designed to ease patient stress with some tail-wagging quality time.

The less-fretting-through-petting effort – which launched last week with visits from golden doodle Oliver and schnauzer poodle Schnoodles – sees enthusiastic four-legged friends (and their human handlers) making the rounds through NYU Winthrop’s public areas, meeting and greeting any patients who care to say hi.

The already-popular pup parade is part of a rounded healthcare approach that goes beyond the needs of the body, according to NYU Winthrop Director of Volunteer Services Jean Zebroski.

“We take a holistic view of our patient care,” Zebroski said. “Not just addressing the physical health of our patients, but their mental and spiritual needs as well.”

Paw patrol: The two- and four-legged members of NYU Winthrop’s WAGS team.

More than just a cuddly distraction, pet therapy is statistically proven to improve patient outcomes. Some fibromyalgia patients have reported significant decreases in pain and improvements in mood from animal interactions, while pet-assisted therapy has also proven beneficial for pediatric cancer patients.

The WAGS dogs are certified pet-therapy dogs that come to NYU Winthrop through Pet Partners, a national nonprofit pet-therapy agency, and Bideawee, a no-kill pet-rescue organization serving the Greater New York region.

To prepare for WAGS duty, each participating pup underwent “practical testing,” according to NYU Winthrop, meant to gauge the animal’s reaction to wheelchairs, crowds and other stimuli likely to pop up in a hospital.

Each dogs’ handler also underwent specific training and testing, while canines and humans alike engage in “careful safeguards for infection,” the hospital added, including antibacterial wipe-downs before, during and after patient interactions.

Those training sessions should be packed in the coming weeks. While WAGS is set to operate on a twice-weekly schedule at first, daily visits are not far off – and the hospital plans to soon offer pet-therapy services upon patient request.

It’s a brilliant inclusion in the healthcare continuum, according to Zebroski, and a beautiful way to not only calm patients, but to put their minds in a better position to promote healing by reminding them of their favorite creature comforts.

“Petting or hugging an adorable dog can be such a stress reliever,” the volunteer services director added. “And so many of our patients have pets as well, so these visits are warm reminders of their best friends waiting for them at home.”