In December 2018, Netanel Felber was injured in a terror attack and suffered a critical head injury. After being in a coma for months, he was transferred to Sheba Medical Center for intensive rehabilitation. Against all odds, he began to recover. Last May, he underwent brain surgery and had a brief setback, but since then his recovery has picked up again. In addition to the hospital staff, a physiotherapy dog named “Sheba” takes a great deal of the credit.
“The dog relates to Netanel in a non-judgmental way, happily accepting the food that Netanel offers it or any other attention,” says Judi Felber, Netanel’s mother.
With both legs in braces, Netanel stands and pets Sheba, building strength and improving balance in his legs. He also plays fetch with a ball, requiring him to flex his elbow repeatedly without the tedious intensity of standard physio exercises that accomplish the same goal. Brushing Sheba’s fur is another beneficial exercise and must be done by exerting just the right amount of pressure – enough to get through the fur, but not too much to hurt the dog.
Prof. Israel Dudkiewicz, head of the orthopedic rehabilitation program at Sheba, shares that when patients perform physical therapy exercises with the dog, he has noted a significant improvement in strength, endurance, and compliance.
“The dog takes attention away from the pain and difficulty of the exercise, enabling the patient to try to do more and to do it better,” said Dudkeiwicz. “I’ve watched patients who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to stand for just 2 or 3 minutes, but when they pet the dog, they can stand for 30 minutes and more without even realizing it.”
The Felbers made aliyah about 12 years ago from Silver Spring, Maryland, choosing to settle in Raanana with their three children and dog. “Netanel loved our dog, and I think that interacting with Sheba the dog is very healing for him,” said Judi, who has been by Netanel’s side almost constantly since the terror attack
“Neurorehabilitation is slower than anything else I’ve ever experienced,” shares Judi. “Netanel can’t walk, talk or eat independently — yet; but I try to focus on the positives: He’s responding to people, to us, his family… We’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m hopeful.”
Prof. Dudkiewicz is encouraged and excited by Netanel’s positive response to Sheba. “We have seen a dramatic improvement in patients performing physical therapy with dogs from both a physical and emotional perspective,” he said. “We aim to incorporate this as another treatment tool, such as hydrotherapy and other unconventional therapies, for patients who can benefit from it.”
Sheba is only seven months old, but this puppy’s performance hints at a successful future. The training to become a physiotherapy dog is rigorous and lasts about a year. Throughout the entire course, the dogs are tested regularly to confirm that they’re up to standard. Also, the rehabilitation staff must be trained on how to integrate the dog into their programs. Different dogs are used for different types of rehab patients and disabilities. Each dog costs over $30,000 to train, which limits the number of canines that can be integrated into the department. However, Prof. Dudkiewicz asserts that the remarkable results justify the financial expense.