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Originally published March 8, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified March 9, 2011 at 9:43 AM

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Smiles go viral with videos of therapy-dog visits

Swedish/Edmonds hospital's therapy-pup cam lets viewers watch as the dogs interact with smiling patients.

Seattle Times staff reporter

If you want further proof of the bond between dog and human, go to the website for the Swedish/Edmonds Hospital dog cam.

Every day, in the hospital's therapy-pup program, dogs visit patients, and you can watch them work wonders as each dog, with a 4 ½-ounce camera attached to the top of its head, records it all.

Stephanie Pendleton, 31, is a nurse on the hospital's eighth floor, where patients recover from surgery and battle cancer.

"I found that when patients get a very hard diagnosis, they turn inward and become depressed," she said. "They stop interacting with the staff. But after they meet with the dog, it's almost as if the dog comes in and breaks down a wall between the patient and the staff."

The dog cam shows the dog nuzzling up to somebody laid up in bed, and it shows the smile on the patient. Even digitally, it manages to make warmth come through.

Extensive research shows how dogs lower stress and anxiety levels in people.

The bond goes back 15,000 years, when humans in East Asia likely first domesticated gray wolves.

Dogs make up 90 percent of therapy animals, according to Delta Society, the Bellevue-based national animal-therapy organization.

And, Pendleton says, the therapy pups help the nurses, too.

"A patient might come in for abdominal pain, and they get a pathology report and find out they have pancreatic cancer," she said. "I'm not gonna lie and say I don't cry."

On this particular day, an 11-½-year-old yellow Lab named Teddy Bear arrives at the hospital with his owner, Christi Dudzik, of Woodinville. He doesn't mind at all that the webcam, on a makeshift bonnet, is attached to his head with a pink strap.

He's already starred in a number of the 15 webcam videos that the hospital began posting last summer, with the permission of patients. With little publicity, the videos have received about 14,000 hits on the hospital's website and others that have posted them. You can sign up and receive a tweet every time a new video is posted.

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The videos are edited from their original lengths of maybe 15 minutes down to 30 seconds or so because, well, for one thing, when you strap a camcorder on a dog's head, you see what the dog is looking at. Which a lot of times is them sniffing the floor, as dogs are wont to do.

The hospital also is asked often if that's a real dog that the webcam shows, as all you see of the dog is its nose.

Some people believe it's a puppet, like Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, says Steve Kaiser, head of marketing for the hospital. No, no, he reassures people, that's a real dog, which is why he likes to include in edited videos a patient's hands reaching out and petting the dog.

Healing Paws

Dudzik owns a business called Healing Paws, and the hospital has contracted with her to coordinate the therapy-pups program.

For Dudzik, 53, dogs as therapy became a cause when she was in her early-30s, and decided to earn a master's in counseling from Seattle University.

"A friend came over to the house, and she was distraught," Dudzik said. "I asked what was wrong, and she waved me off. She said she couldn't tell me. So I stayed with her in silence.

"Then Dog Bear [a yellow Lab the family then owned] came over to her, and she put her hand on his head and started stroking his ear. His ears were like velvet. She started telling him her story.

"That was an absolute epiphany for me. It was so clear to me to incorporate animals into mental-health practice. Animals can touch people in ways we can't. You've heard the term, 'unconditional acceptance.' It's true. They forgive us practically before we finish making a mistake."

The Dudzik family now owns five dogs, and all but one have been therapy dogs.

With Teddy Bear on a leash and the webcam pointing forward, the first patient visit is to Claudia Hurlbert, of Whidbey Island.

She had come in with stomach pain the previous day. It turned out to be a ruptured appendix.

"Oh, what a beautiful dog," she says, patting the yellow Lab, which nuzzles up.

Hurlbert and her husband own a dog themselves, and so Teddy Bear brings instant comfort.

Patients can't bring in their dogs. The therapy dogs all have received the proper vaccines and get regular anti-flea treatment.

YouTube inspiration

Kaiser says he got the idea for the dog cam when he watched a YouTube video of a guy who had lost his job and, to pass the time, put a webcam on his cat just to see what the cat did all day. Mostly, the cat slept.

That is not the case with the Swedish/Edmonds webcam pups, and Kaiser believed people would be interested in seeing them in action.

The next room visited on this day is that of Marya Neeley of Everett. She has uterine cancer.

She has a broad smile when seeing Teddy Bear.

"When you have a bad day, you can bring your spirits up," she says of the dog visit, the yellow Lab resting his head on her leg. "You remember there is more to life."

The dog just looks at Neely with that dog look of understanding. He licks her hand.

"He's got the biggest eyes," she says. Her day has just gotten a little bit better.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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