by Hannah Crain - firstname.lastname@example.org
Whiskey, a 10-year-old therapy dog, traverses UNC Hospitals’ hallways with confidence, proudly wearing her signature pink collar. A fixture in the hospital and university communities, she has been cheering up patients and their families and supporting undergraduate students during exam week for years. But she wasn’t always destined to become a therapy dog.
“When we met her eight years ago, she was the perfect dog for us – very kind and outgoing – but her behavioral skills needed work,” admits Silvia Kreda, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and Whiskey’s co-owner.
Kreda, a lung disease researcher who focuses on cystic fibrosis, and her husband, Preston Parker, a medical lab technician at UNC Hospitals, remember falling in love with Whiskey on their first visit to Paws4Ever, a nonprofit, adoption-guaranteed shelter in Mebane, North Carolina. After deciding to make Whiskey a part of their home, the couple felt that training would benefit her. Within a few weeks of steady training at Paws4Ever, Whiskey began behaving better. Over time, Kreda and Parker were so pleased with Whiskey’s progress that they committed to training her all the way through the Pet Partners Program, which she achieved in 2009.
After certification, Kreda and Parker volunteered at nursing homes and public libraries around the Triangle. The following year, the team applied to volunteer at UNC Hospitals so that they could make visits between work hours. Today, Whiskey visits patients at N.C. Children’s Hospital and in the physical therapy clinic at UNC Hospitals.
“When she comes to the office with me, she knows it’s time to work,” says Kreda, who has been at UNC for two decades. “She is wonderful around children and knows exactly what to do around patients of all ages.”
Kreda remembers one instance that illustrates Whiskey’s ability to tailor her behavior to the specific needs of the patient. It happened when Kreda and Parker took Whiskey to see a two-year-old pediatric oncology patient.
“The child was very small and sitting on the floor,” recalls Kreda. “Without any commands, Whiskey slowly crawled closer to the child so that she wouldn’t intimidate her.”
The moment revealed to the couple how intuitive Whiskey is when she approaches a patient and how effective pet therapy can be for patients. Whiskey has been of particularly good service to patients recovering from physical health challenges that require therapy.
“Patients have a hard time not thinking about their particular challenge, especially when it comes to physical exercises that may help them during their recovery,” Kreda said. “But as soon as they come into contact with a therapy dog, they instantly relax and can think about something positive, which, in some cases, allows them to do more physically. It’s like a burst of sunshine enters the room all of a sudden.”
Whiskey was a source of sunshine for a teenage patient who lost the use of her legs due to an accident. The patient, Kreda remembers, feared that her dog at home wouldn’t feel the same about her because of her disability.
“Dog therapy is so successful because it reminds people who are dealing with challenges that animals see us for who we are,” Kreda told her. “They don’t see anything else – they just love you.”
By working with Whiskey, the patient learned how to take her dog on a walk.
“She looked forward to returning home and walking with her dog,” Kreda says.
Every summer, Kreda and Parker take Whiskey to Helping Kids with Hemiplegia, a therapeutic day camp for kids with hemiplegia. The camp, founded by Holly Holland, senior pediatric occupational therapist at N.C. Children's Hospital, uses constraint-induced movement to help children learn how to use their affected limb. Holland is grateful every time Whiskey stops by the camp.
“‘Dog Days of Summer’ at Helping Kids with Hemiplegia Camp is a favorite day because of the therapy dogs like Whiskey that come and visit,” says Holland. “Whiskey helps the children use their weaker arm by holding and guiding her with her leash, eating a treat from a child's hand, and allowing the children to pet her fur.”
For Kreda and Parker, who are firm believers in second chances in life, it’s fitting that the dog they rescued is helping others in need.
“No matter what happens, life continues,” says Kreda. “It doesn’t mean life is going to be bad. What Whiskey has shown us, both through her own experience and by helping others, is that you can always find a new path.”