Raisin’ the Bar

8 minutes

There are therapists who work to heal the mind and those who help mend the body. At the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, Raisin has reported for duty each weekday morning to do a little of both for nearly nine years. Her official title is facility dog—being of service is what the black Labrador was bred, raised, and trained for. But more than just helping patients regain motor skills or improve recall, Raisin reminds them of life outside of the hospital, sits with them without judgement or demands, and brightens their souls with a dog’s endless capacity for joy.

When Kristy Doyle, now supervisor of therapeutic recreation, arrived at the Oklahoma City VA twenty-nine years ago, rehabilitative options were limited. Today, the Community Living Center is awash in colorful drawings, sculptures, and collages created by patients. Music frequently fills the halls. Adaptive sports help inspire veterans to celebrate what their bodies can do. Recently, the facility has added virtual reality to its list of rehabilitation tools. And Doyle has helped oversee this transformation from grayscale to Technicolor.

“I’m really proud of the program we’ve built and our staff of recreation therapists,” she says. “They’re an intelligent, creative, dedicated, fantastic staff that’s developed an amazing treatment program for our veterans.”

Kristy Doyle, supervisor of therapeutic recreation at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, and Sarah Sands, a recreational therapist at the VA, pose with Raisin. Photo by Phillip Ybarra

Kristy Doyle, supervisor of therapeutic recreation at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, and Sarah Sands, a recreational therapist at the VA, pose with Raisin. Photo by Phillip Ybarra

One of Doyle’s proudest additions is the facility dog program, which launched in 2009. Though Raisin isn’t the first to bear her title, she went through two years of training to earn it. Canine Companions, the oldest service-dog organization in the country, made sure Raisin could remain calm in even the most chaotic setting and that she knew about forty different commands like turning off lights and opening doors. They also wanted to ensure she was just the right fit for Doyle and her facility, which provides care for more than sixty thousand veterans each year.

When Doyle arrived in California for the required two-week training course, she wasn’t sure who she’d end up taking home. Canine Companions assesses dogs’ and handlers’ compatibility for the first few days. But about three days in, Doyle met her “magic match.”

“We asked for a dog who couldn’t get enough love,” she says.

“That’s what we got,” adds recreational therapist Sarah Sands. “Everybody that walks in the door is here to see Raisin, at least that’s what she thinks.”

Sands and Doyle have co-handled Raisin for nine years, and it’s been an ideal arrangement for the three very busy therapists. Two days a week, Raisin accompanies Doyle to the clinic on 14th Street to work with outpatient mental health groups. The other three days, she goes to the CLC with Sands to assist with extended care patients’ rehabilitation.

“Patients who have had strokes, for example, and are dealing with weakness on a certain side of their body can brush her or use both of their hands to massage or pet her,” Sands says.

“They might throw her a ball, play tug, those kinds of things.”

Raisin also visits veterans who are stuck in their rooms or beds for whatever medical reason.

“She's able to get up on bed with them and provide that kind of support,” Sands says. “We have a palliative care unit, and that's where she does a lot of that kind of service. So the emotional support, the socialization, the comfort: Those things that these veterans are missing because they're in bed and can't have their own pets here.”

Doyle uses Raisin to help with cognitive rehabilitation as well.

“If somebody's having trouble sequencing after an injury or illness, you could do something like take off her vest and her collar and her leash, and then have them problem solve, putting all that back on,” Doyle says.

The word magic is used frequently in reference to Raisin. Many of her patients would agree her impact is hard to put into words.

“A veteran came in quite anxious just from driving to the VA and parking,” Sands says. “Her goals were working on anxiety and learning coping skills, so she was now really anxious. She said she needed Raisin. They went and sat down together, and she said Raisin reminded her to be in the moment.”

In fact, Raisin’s positive impact is obvious. Even waiting for the OKC VA’s notoriously slow elevators, no one seems to mind waiting with Raisin about. Faced with her powdered-sugar snout and loving chestnut eyes, who could be mad?

Raisin is set to retire as a service dog at the end of May. Photo by Phillip Ybarra

Raisin is set to retire as a service dog at the end of May. Photo by Phillip Ybarra

“I feel like our facility dogs--and I think Raisin's been especially impactful this way--have changed the treatment environment. I don't know how to describe it exactly, but they lighten the air. And I can't imagine not having them in the treatment area now. Walking down the hallway, you can just see people’s continence, their posture, their facial expressions. It all changes just from seeing her.”

When Kristy Doyle and Raisin retire on May 31, they’re off to relax and have some fun. They certainly earned it after a combined thirty eighty-years of helping veterans.
Sands says they hope to have another facility dog at some point, but it’s a long process. In the meantime, belly-flopping Val and PJ both are a little shorter in the tooth, but so excited to serve.

To learn more about donating or volunteering to be a puppy foster for Canine Companions, visit canine.org.

Get There
Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, or va.gov/oklahoma-city-health-care
Written By
Karlie Ybarra

Managing editor Karlie Ybarra loves to explore her home state—and meet many of its animal citizens—any chance she gets.

Karlie Ybarra
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