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February 12, 2017

Therapy dogs bring joy, comfort to hospital patients, families and staff

‘I never knew there could be such wonderful dogs’

Teddy, a certified therapy dog, visits with Yvonne Casto during a recent trip to Franciscan Health Lafayette. The hospital currently has 10 certified therapy dogs and their handlers participating in its program on two campuses. (Photo by Jesica E. Hollinger)

Teddy, a certified therapy dog, visits with Yvonne Casto during a recent trip to Franciscan Health Lafayette. The hospital currently has 10 certified therapy dogs and their handlers participating in its program on two campuses. (Photo by Jesica E. Hollinger)

By Jesica E. Hollinger

LAFAYETTE — “Oh my, oh my,” Yvonne Casto said, with an ear-to-ear grin stretching across her face, as she stroked Bessie’s silky fur and Bessie’s chin nuzzled the bedside.

A patient at Franciscan Health Lafayette, Casto petted the Flowered Chinese Sharpei as she talked with Tom Roberts, Bessie’s handler, during his round of hospital visits.

Roberts is a volunteer with the nationally certified Therapy Dogs International (TDI).

“She reminds me of our Brutus. We had him for 16 years; he died last March,” Casto shared with Roberts.

Exit Bessie, enter a second therapy pet visitor: Teddy, a white Samoyed accompanied by his handler, Bob Feuer.

“My husband took it hard,” Casto said of the loss of their dog. “He still says good night to Brutus before he goes to bed each night ... but we are too old, now, to get another dog. This is so nice, so nice.”

What kind of a dog is the best fit for the therapy program?

A therapy dog is born, not made, said Feuer, explaining that Teddy was a “discovered” rescue, living in a situation that didn’t work for Teddy or his former owners. When the two met, they instantly clicked.

“You can teach a behavior to a dog, but you can’t change a dog’s inherent temperament,” Feuer said. “Therapy dogs must be tolerant of other dogs, outgoing and friendly to all people – that was Teddy. I knew he was special from the beginning.”

Therapy Dogs International was founded in 1976 in New Jersey, when a group of dog handlers were competing at the AKC obedience trials. Their initial effort was to take the dogs to nursing homes for visits.

Therapy dogs differ from service dogs, in that a service dog is trained to help one person with a disability and helps only that person. Therapy dogs provide comport to all people.

In 2015, Franciscan Health Lafayette partnered with TDI and hosted a “Yappy Hour” to engage the community and educate area residents about the benefits from pet therapy dogs.

“Franciscan Health recognizes the value of utilizing trained therapy dogs in facilitating the well-being of patients, families and staff,” said Dr. Cecilia May, medical director of Franciscan Health’s palliative care program.

“I’ll be honest … I never was a dog-lover … it wasn’t until I met these guys (Bob and Tom) and saw these dogs in action,” May said. “I just never knew there could be such wonderful dogs.”

Before admittance into the program, dogs are tested and evaluated by a Therapy Dogs International representative. After dogs are admitted to the program, they must be evaluated annually by a veterinarian and submit yearly health records to TDI. Once deemed healthy, the dogs receive their yearly tag, inscribed with a registration number. The dogs also are issued a special uniform – a red kerchief with the TDI patch, which identifies their credentials as a certified therapy dog.

Feuer got involved with the therapy dog program because he felt like he needed something to give his life more meaning.

“I was semi-retired and needed direction,” he said. “My brother had recently passed away from ALS and I felt so empty.

“It’s funny … I was reading the newspaper and noticed an ad for a Therapy Dog Program at the Blair Animal Hospital, so I signed Teddy and me up to take the course,” Feuer remembered.

Teddy is distinguishable in any crowd, a dog you see and never forget.

Feuer said he was surprised when the instructor yelled “It’s you!” from across the room, when they walked into their first training session.

“She explained how she saw Teddy and me at a downtown festival and was amazed at how well we worked together, around people, crowds, noise and food vendors,” Feuer said. “She said she was so pleased we were taking the program.”

It’s not as simple as putting a leash on one of the therapy pets and heading for the next visit. It’s an elaborate process to get the dog “ready” to meet his clientele.

“A typical day starts with me getting Teddy ready. He gets a sanitizing spray, a brush out, grooming spray, and another brush out. This is followed by me washing his feet,” Feurer recounted.

“Then, I put his kerchief on and he waits patiently by the door until I get my hospital shirt on and my supplies ready, including plenty of hand sanitizer.”

On a typical day, Teddy visits two to three places, meeting as many as 800 people each week. Teddy has more than 8,000 friends and followers on Facebook and patients are given magnets and business cards with Teddy’s picture – a loving reminder of him that they can place on their refrigerators or mantels.

For Feurer, being a pet therapy dog handler has become a full-time effort, with more requests and more people in need than he can possibly reach … But, he does his very best.

“I feel the therapy dog program is important to relieve the anxieties that the patients have. Often, all it takes is a dog visit to calm down an agitated patient,” Feurer said.

While the pet therapy program brings the participants great joy, it can be emotionally challenging for the handlers, who at times witness the last moments of a person’s life.

Feurer said one of the greatest challenges is entering a room where the patient is dying or has already died.

“I’ll never forget this one young lady Teddy and I visited. She was dying from cancer. Teddy gave her so much comfort; we decided to visit her every day until she was released to go home with hospice care,” he shared.

“Her sister has posted so many nice comments and pictures that she took of her and Teddy, during her last days. These visits meant so much to them – it felt wonderful to have been part of the last fond memories she had with her sister,” he added.

Feuer said that while there are many poignant moments in his service, he also derives great satisfaction when he and Teddy are able to help patients in the healing process, both physically and emotionally.

“One of my most cherished memories is of a little boy recovering from a pit bull attack. His parents contacted us for a visit, because they were afraid their son would have emotional scars from the attack,” Feuer said.

“Here was this precious little 5-year old boy, standing there with stitches all over his chest, arms and face. He sees Teddy — this happy-looking dog ready to greet him — and that was all it took for him to hug Teddy and not be afraid of him.”

Therapy dogs also are being sought more frequently to assist those suffering from both minor and major forms of mental illness. Feuer said he recalls an incident involving a despondent elderly woman lying emotionless in bed, who had been uncommunicative up until the point when he and Teddy arrived.

“It was easy to see that she had built a wall around herself. Teddy walked up beside her bed and waited patiently. The woman hugged Teddy and kissed him … minutes later she started talking to him. It was a remarkable thing to witness.”

Roberts, a psychiatric nurse for 47 years, said he has personally witnessed the health benefits from the interaction of the dogs and patients.

“I worked at Wabash Valley, and I had my own private practice,” Roberts said. “A visit from a therapy dog is about three times more effective that a shot of Thorazine.”

Lisa Green, volunteer coordinator at Franciscan Health Lafayette, said the hospital currently has 10 certified therapy dogs in its program.

She has observed many patient visits with the handlers and dogs and witnessed the joy and comfort they bring to patients of all ages.

“I have seen the sick children smile when the therapy dogs come to visit,” Green said. “They love seeing the dogs and being able to pet them. It calms them and helps them when they are scared. I have seen the elderly hug the dogs and talk about a dog they once had or the dog at home that they miss. Some patients don’t have friends or family who visit, so when they receive a visit from the therapy dogs, it truly lifts their spirits and decreases their feelings of isolation.”

For many patients, petting or hugging a therapy dog assists in the recovery process. For others, the need is greater, and the therapy dog goes that extra mile.

“We were visiting a woman in the hospital with serious blood pressure problems, dangerously high,” Feurer said. “She asked if Teddy could get into bed with her. I got a sheet from the nurse and placed it on her bed. Teddy jumped up on the bed to lay with her.

“She wrapped her arms around him, and soon, they both fell asleep. Two hours later, she woke up and said she felt so much better. That night, her blood pressure stabilized and the next day, the doctor released her.”

Green said the dogs aren’t just beneficial to the patients, they are greatly appreciated by the hospital doctors and staff, too.

“A dog visit can do wonders for hospital staff – sometime they are under great stress and can vent their stress in a calming hug from Teddy,” Lisa said.

“I will never forget, once I witnessed one of the nurses crying, after she had just lost a patient. Teddy just stayed right there with her, as she hugged him. He took away some of her heartache and sadness. “

Green and other staff members anticipate that the therapy dog program will continue to grow and evolve.

In addition to his hospital visits, Teddy visits schools, convalescent homes, funeral homes, special needs children, and court hearings. One day each week, Teddy also works with a reading program that pairs dogs with children, giving them the opportunity to read to a patient and supportive therapy pet, in a casual and relaxed environment.

“The children are not intimidated when they read to the dogs. Through this, their reading skills improve dramatically,” Feurer said.

“The doctors are growing to appreciate the benefits from the dogs. In the future, I hope that the dogs are given more contact with the critical patients and their families and their nurses. We need many more dog teams, and it would be nice if we had several teams a day — one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. I also think it would be beneficial to expand the program to six days a week.  If we can attract more dog teams, we can shorten the visit times for the therapy dogs, so they can unwind, before their next visit,” Green said.

Franciscan Health Lafayette has six approved areas for pet therapy visitation. At the East campus they include 3 North, 3 South, and the Observation and Pediatrics Center. At the Central campus, they include Inpatient Rehab Center and Psychiatric Services.

Interested persons can call 765-502-4249 to learn more about the pet therapy program, as well as volunteer opportunities. Interested readers also can visit TDI’s Web site at \ for more information.

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