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Jewish Journal

Citizen Canine

by Michael Aushenker

April 3, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Stephanie Poretz brings Sasha, her 13-year-old cocker spaniel, to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center twice a week. Mark Ferber comes in with his beagle Miss Daisy. Beverly Byer brings down Brailley, her black lab who was rejected from guide dog school because of her bad hips.

Since 1995, Jewish professionals have participated their pets in POOCH, an acronym for Pets Offering Ongoing Care and Healing. The Cedars-Sinai program allows affectionate dogs to spend time cheering up sick and terminally ill patients.

"It's very healing having a dog give you unconditional love," said Barbara Cowen, who coordinates POOCH with Sandra Colson and Terri Lukomski. "When the dog comes into the room, there's a lot of physical and emotional benefits. It's really healing for everybody involved, including the staff."

Originally launched in Cedars-Sinai's AIDS unit, POOCH now fans out its four-legged friends to the cardiology and pediatric wards and the Thalians Mental Health Center. The dogs undergo an extensive screening process, and special care goes into making sure that the canines do not harbor germs.

"Dogs are bathed 24 hours before they come," Cowen said, "and they have stool sample checks twice a year."

For two years, Meagan Panzer has brought down Cosmo, her 7-year-old Bijon.

"It's an absolutely wonderful program," Panzer said. "You become an instant friend of whomever it is you're introduced to. You're not talking about the illness, you're bonding with them over dogs."

She recalls one time when "a woman saw me in the hallway and begged me to see her father in the Intensive Care Unit. He had had a terrible night. They couldn't calm him down. The minute he saw Cosmo, you saw his whole body relax. He fell asleep with my dog [sleeping] in his arms. The family couldn't have thanked me more."

Cosmo loves his tikkun olam work. But even for the dogs, the experience can be emotionally draining.

"He's actually exhausted afterward," Panzer said. "Cosmo comes home and takes a really long nap."

To learn more about POOCH, contact Barbara Cowen at (310) 423-2749.

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