'A good Monster'

Pet therapy team offers comfort, hope to infusion center patients

August 19, 2014


Carolyn Bivens had recovered from breast cancer treatment when she and her husband thought  it might be time for a pet.

They decided to rescue a Havanese, a breed native to Cuba. The dogs are known for their smarts, easygoing nature and sociability.

That’s when a 13-pound, 2-year-old ball of impish energy they named Monster entered their lives and stole their hearts. Before long, Bivens and her husband, Bill, sensed that Monster might be destined for more than being a family dog.

“He loved car rides, new situations, new learning opportunities,” Bivens recalls. The couple decided to enroll in a pet therapy course with Monster to see if they were good at it.

After four months of training, it turned out their hunch was correct: Monster was a natural.

Today, he and Bivens can be found in the infusion center at UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, where Monster delivers comfort, charm and copious kisses to cancer patients, caregivers, physicians and nurses.

Pet therapy benefits

Monster and Bivens are just one of many pet therapy volunteer teams working throughout UC Irvine Medical Center.

A visit from a friendly, nurturing pet has a number of scientifically proven benefits, particularly in the hospital environment where patients and families may be feeling stress, exhaustion or uncertainty about the future.

Pet therapy can:

  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Reduce physical pain
  • Improve cardiovascular health
  • Lift spirits and lessen depression
  • Decrease feelings of isolation
  • Reduce boredom and anxiety

Rigorous training process

Becoming a pet therapy team is more than a matter of having a friendly dog who loves to snuggle and be patted by strangers, although that certainly helps.

To become a certified therapy animal, dogs must pass a skills test and demonstrate:

  • Basic obedience skills (sit, down, stay, stand, etc.)
  • Comfort with hospital equipment, including beeping machines or wheelchairs
  • Good socialization skills with other dogs and people
  • Good health, free from parasites, infections and diseases

UCI Health pet therapy dogs must show proof of vaccination and be groomed within 24 hours before a visit to the hospital.

Not all dogs make the cut to become therapy dogs. During the skills test, any number of behaviors — including shyness, aggressiveness, not responding to commands, leash pulling and whimpering — can cause an automatic failure of the course, .

All of this training, says Bivens , helps form a bond between the handler and the therapy animal in which they learn to depend on one another.

Monster at work

According to Bivens, Monster has a sixth sense about the people he meets.

“In a waiting area, he can absolutely pick out the person who needs him.”

Some patients just want Monster in a chair next to them. Others enjoy having him lie beside them, while others hold him. Monster lets patients and caregivers determine the level of contact they’re comfortable with.

And thanks to his small size, he’s easy to cuddle. “That’s probably the most memorable part of our visits, when a caregiver or patient just really wants a break from the stress and a little relief from what they’re doing and they just want to cuddle something,” Bivens says.

Young children, who might be intimidated by anything named “Monster,” are told that he’s a good Monster who is named after Sully from “Monsters, Inc.”

Whenever Monster meets someone — whether it’s a patient, caregiver or staff member — a smile after an encounter with him is not far behind.

As Bivens puts it: “The unconditional love of a dog just isn’t complicated.”

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