Weekly Feature

2015-07-28 / Front Page

Catholic Health pet therapy program provides comfort to patients and families


Doolie, a 3-year-old dachshund, is one of five certified therapy dogs that visit with patients at various Catholic Health hospitals. Doolie, a 3-year-old dachshund, is one of five certified therapy dogs that visit with patients at various Catholic Health hospitals. Catholic Health’s hospitals — Kenmore Mercy, Mercy, Sisters of Charity Main Campus and Sisters of Charity St. Joseph Campus — have recently partnered with Therapy Dogs International to offer therapy services to patients, visiting families and hospital associates.

The program piloted at Sisters Hospital last September and was eventually extended to the other Catholic Health hospitals after a positive reception. The therapy program went into full effect in May.

The hospitals require that all of the visiting dogs be certified through Therapy Dogs International. The canines and their handlers visit the facilities on a regular monthly schedule, but the hospitals also try to satisfy special requests to see the dogs.

The Catholic Health system has been adding more dogs and handlers as the program expanded, and now it has five therapy-certified dogs. The canines include a dachshund named Doolie, a yellow Labrador retriever named Tank, a golden retriever named Bella, a standard poodle named Jon Luc and a Great Dane named Mya.

“It’s well-known and scientifically proven that interaction with a gentle, friendly pet has significant physical and mental health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health, diminishes overall physical pain, lifts spirits and lessens depression, lowers anxiety and reduces loneliness,” said Lynn Overbeck, director of volunteer services at Kenmore Mercy Hospital.

Overbeck noted that the program has been met with positive reviews. The dogs help reduce anxiety and stress for patients who may be missing their own pets at home or visitors who are worried about their hospitalized loved ones.

Three-year-old Doolie the dachshund, and his handler, Sonja Miller, have been involved with pet therapy for almost two years. To become certified through Therapy Dogs International, the dog and handler have to take several tests and classes to ensure that both are prepared to handle working and visiting in hospital environments. Miller explains that she had to put Doolie through an obedience class for eight weeks at a canine academy, where he learned basic commands and positive behaviors.

After the therapy dog-in-training passes the basic obedience class, it is allowed to take a two-hour certification test. The dog is required to be comfortable and calm around strangers of any age, whether the stranger is a relaxed senior citizen or an energetic child. During the evaluation, testers also conduct a pretend visit with a patient. In order to pass, the dog must be comfortable around wheelchairs or walkers, has to be able to handle unexpected or loud noises, and must be friendly when meeting other dogs. In addition, the handler has to watch a video and take a test about how to conduct him or herself when going into a facility with a therapy dog.

Miller and Doolie normally visit a medical rehabilitation unit on the first Monday of each month. The pair is required to check in at both the front desk and the nurses station, and then they are allowed to visit patients. Miller and Doolie walk from room to room throughout the hospital, asking if the residing patient would like a visit from a therapy dog. Visit restrictions are only placed on patients in isolation or individuals who may be allergic to dogs. As long as the patient is willing to have a visit, the handler and therapy dog will spend some time with them.

When a patient invites Doolie in for a visit, Miller will place the dog on a chair next to the bed, or will lay a towel across the patient’s lap as a place for the canine to sit. While the hospital resident pets the dog, Miller will ask the person questions and make conversation, often about the patient’s interest in dogs. Oftentimes, the questions will lead to a discussion about the patient’s pets at home, or maybe a dog that the person had while growing up. The handler believes these little visits make a huge difference for the patients during their stay at the hospital. She claims she can see the change in their attitude as soon as she walks through the door with Doolie at her side.

“You see the dullness and sadness in their eyes change to happiness, and they smile,” said Miller. “That is what gives me the satisfaction, and that’s why I keep on volunteering. I just feel good, and Doolie is happy, too.”

Miller believes her dog gets just as much enjoyment out of the visits as she and the patients do. In addition, it is not only the patients who take advantage of the therapy dog’s sessions at the hospital. Miller explains that many times when they are visiting, nurses from all over the building will also stop by to have a quick visit with Doolie. It is a great source of stress relief for the medical workers, especially on particularly busy or stressful days.

“It’s such a great thing to give back to the community and be fortunate enough to have a great dog that, at such a young age, can do this work,” said Miller. “It is an emotional service, and I am blessed.”

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