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Man’s best healer: Therapy dogs offer companionship and improved mental health

This time of year, between the seemingly perpetual cold weather, heavy traffic on Route 25, seasonal business closures and the rising cost of living on the East End, it’s easy to become susceptible to depression and stress. 

At times like these, folks may need to take a “paws” and consider animal-assisted therapy, a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal. 

The need for emotional support animals is growing rapidly, said social worker Vincent Ortolani, coordinator for the Caregiver Center at Peconic Bay Medical Center. 

“Even if it’s for a couple of minutes, it helps [people] go to a place of happiness and relaxation,” he said. “Dogs are very innocent and it brings them to that place with the dog.”

PBMC has two certified dog handlers, Anthony Miracolo and Donna Rodriguez, who visit hospital patients with their dogs on a weekly basis.

Mr. Miracolo could visit the hospital with either of his two English springer spaniels, Pearl and Bella, who are American Kennel Club champions. Ms. Rodriguez, who can provide therapy services outside the hospital, visits each room with her Jack Russell terrier, Tiny.

“I can’t believe the reactions patients have,” Mr. Miracolo said. “[Bella’s] like a rock star; she makes everyone smile, and gets them to talk about their own dogs or a dog they had. 

“Some people have told me the best part about their stay in the hospital was meeting my dogs,” he added. 

Animal-assisted therapy, or AAT, was introduced at PBMC last year by former palliative care social worker Tara Anglim, who began creating programs to support caregivers and hospital staff. Ms. Anglim previously partnered with Paws on the Leash, which provided the hospital with its own trainers, handlers and dogs.

PBMC’s AAT program is available to assist staff, caregivers and anyone in need of care. Caregivers who have a friend or family member in the hospital are encouraged to call and specially request a pup visit, Mr. Ortolani said. 

When staff need immediate assistance, such as after a negative patient outcome or personal crisis, Team Lavender, PBMC’s peer-to-peer support group, is on call. 

Dogs can do more than just comfort those recovering or working in hospitals. Certain breeds, like Labrador retrievers, are often trained as puppies to become full-time service animals. 

Antony Miracola with his dog Bella. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

The Guide Dog Foundation, located in Smithtown, provides guide and service dogs for people who are blind or visually impaired or have other special needs. Services are provided free of charge. 

The foundation’s marketing director, Andrew Rubenstein, said anyone on the East End is welcome to contact the foundation if they’re in need. If they meet certain eligibility requirements, they will be matched with a pup that’s trained to meet their specific needs. 

“If someone wants to live a life without boundaries, we’re able to provide them with all of the support and anything else they may need,” he said. 

Though most dogs are trained in-house in Smithtown, he said, Peconic Landing in Greenport provides open spaces to train dogs.

“We want the dog to be comfortable in any type of situation,” Mr. Rubenstein said. “So they’re never alarmed and put their owner in danger.” 

The nonprofit has existed since 1946 and has partnered with the Mattituck Lions Club for fundraising, Mr. Rubenstein said.

The group’s sister nonprofit, America’s VetDogs, provides service dogs for veterans and first responders. Those pups may be trained in PTSD, seizure-alert and more. 

“Anybody that receives a dog — whether it’s a working dog a pet dog — it brings that type of support and companionship and love that everybody wants in their lives,” Mr. Rubenstein said. 

Mr. Ortolani added that visiting with a dog allows people to get their minds off whatever is troubling them and appreciate what’s in front of them. 

“This is not only in a hospital setting, but in general — seeing a dog, for a lot of people, brings them a moment of happiness,” he said.