Hamilton Medical Center’s (HMC) Pet Therapy program supports its plan to treat the whole patient. The therapy dogs visit with patients, families, and associates throughout the campus, including patient rooms, the Peeples Cancer Institute, the Emergency Department, medical intensive care unit, and even administrative offices.
The program, sponsored by Dalton Box, has been a unique part of HMC for over a decade.
“Interaction with a gentle, friendly pet can have significant physical and mental benefits, says Gay Ann Talley, Guest and Volunteer Services supervisor. “It’s fairly well documented.”
Physical benefits of pet therapy include: lowering blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health, releasing endorphins (oxytocin) that have a calming effect and diminishing overall physical pain.
“The act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, which can reduce the amount of medication some patients need,” Talley adds.
Mental benefits include: lifting and lessening depression, decreasing feelings of isolation and alienation, encouraging communication, providing comfort, increasing socialization, reducing boredom, lowering anxiety, helping children overcome speech and emotional disorders, creating motivation for the patient to recover faster and reducing loneliness.
Currently, HMC has three volunteers who bring their dogs in for visits, though some visits stopped or decreased during COVID.
Participants in the program include Joanne Davis, with Shaonia (American Staffordshire terrier) and Sabrina (Boston terrier); Jill Durden, with Quigley (Australian shepherd); and Janie DuBose, with Buck (terrier mix).
“Sabrina visits Hamilton occasionally but not often because Hamilton is Shaonia’s people,” says Davis. “She knows when I have been to Hamilton without her, and I get the cold shoulder for a while, but not too long. Shaonia has a heart as big as her smile so she doesn’t stay upset for long.”
Shaonia became certified with Alliance of Therapy Dogs in 2016. “Shaonia has gotten really good at being a therapy dog,” Davis says. “When we enter into a room, she can feel who needs her the most. Whether they’re anxious, nervous, not feeling well or worried, she picks up on this and goes and sits in front of them so they can pet her.”
Dubose says their first time volunteering convinced her to continue. “In the waiting rooms, I saw the weight of the world lift off those waiting for news of their loved ones,” Dubose says. “Smiles on faces of patients who were feeling bad – and all this because of the presence of a small dog.”
Dubose says the parents and older patients seem to appreciate the visit more than the children. “The older patients would share stories of their pets in their youth,” she says. “I enjoyed hearing their stories. Some patients were missing their dogs, and this filled a void. I love being of service to others, and Buck loves getting lots of attention and being petted by those talking to him. He loved doing tricks for an audience.”
Durden says she and Quigley participate in the program because she’s seen firsthand what a pet therapy visit can mean to a patient.
“My Mother had a stroke during hurricane Jeanne in 2004,” Durden says. “She couldn’t speak and was in a fetal position. The doctors thought she was paralyzed on one side. A therapy dog came to visit her in intensive care. That was the first time I had ever seen a therapy dog. When she saw the dog, her face lit up. She started moving so she could touch the dog. They soon learned that she was not paralyzed. She even managed to say ‘dog’ – the first word she had spoken in five days.”
For Quigley, Durden says, he enjoys the adventure of it all. He got his name because Durden likes the movie, “Quigley Down Under.”
“He loves meeting new people and going places. He likes the attention and all the love that he receives. He thinks everyone should pet him. If someone walks by him without acknowledging him, he just can’t understand why.”
Durden says she likes sharing Quigley with people because he brings them joy. “When I look at him, I can’t help but smile, and he makes others smile too. I love to hear people say, ‘you just made my day,’ or ‘I feel better already.’ Everyone needs a little joy, especially during difficult times like hospital stays or living in care facilities. And Quigley knows how to bring the joy.”
In addition to HMC, the dogs and their owners have visited other organizations in the community, like nursing homes, schools, developmental centers, libraries and other organizations that invite them.
All three of the volunteers say they’ve enjoyed participating in the program – for what their dogs have been able to contribute as well as the joy that they get for participating.
“Shaonia is addicted to being a therapy dog,” Davis says. “I have been very blessed to have Shaonia come into my life. To be able to share her with people has been another blessing. “We both look forward to visiting with more people and hope to have many more years participating in the program.”