Creature Comforts

Pet therapy dogs providing encouragement and support to patients at UNC Hospitals.

Creature Comforts click to enlarge Therapy dog Annah, a member of UNC Hospitals’ pet therapy program since October 2012, visits with cardiac patient Davidson Jones. Photo Credit: Angela Walter - Annah's owner.
Creature Comforts click to enlarge Therapy dog Holly. Photo Credit: Ed Gerhardt

Written by Toni Bowerman. This story appeared in Well.

Pet owners will attest to the unconditional love and comfort their animals provide, and science backs that up with evidence. The American Heart Association cites studies that show pet owners have a reduced risk of heart disease along with lower levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and stress.

Pet therapy brings those same health benefits and others to patients in the hospital. Unlike service dogs that assist disabled individuals with daily tasks, the primary purpose of a therapy dog is to help patients feel better, both emotionally and physically.

“The dogs make a huge difference with patients, families and employees,” says Beth Bailey, LRT/CTRS, CCLS, senior child life specialist in Recreational Therapy and Child Life.

UNC Hospitals began the Animal Assisted Activities and Therapy Program in 2002. However, the hospital’s pet program originally began in the early 1990s under a different name. Today, the program has 10 Pet Partner teams.

Holly, a beautiful Australian Shepherd mix, and her owner, Ed Gerhardt, have been regular volunteers with the kids for four years. As a weekend manager at the Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill, Ed often interacted with therapy dogs and witnessed firsthand the positive effects they had on the families staying there. It was not until after he retired, however, that he had time to dedicate to having a therapy dog and was able to join the program.

Ed and Holly start their visit in the Hospital School in Neurosciences, which helps hospitalized children keep up with their studies.

“Holly starts the session by opening the door to the classroom and letting herself in,” Ed says. “The kids love it. I take her to each child, introduce her, and let them give her treats.”

Holly’s visits are always paired with a lesson for the kids about how to handle situations around unfamiliar dogs. Prior to her arrival, the teacher goes through the book May I Pet Your Dog? Then they practice what they learned with Ed and Holly, solidifying this important life skill in their minds. In this way, Ed and Holly provide not only comfort to the children but also instruction.

“Some of the kids are very withdrawn, and she brings them right out. It’s rare that I’ll go into a classroom and that all of the kids aren’t really happy to see her. She makes a big difference with the kids.”

After their visit to the Hospital School, Ed takes Holly to visit patients in physical rehabilitation. Some patients who want to have a Pet Partner visit may need approval from their doctor. Most volunteers in the pet therapy program have regular days during the month that they visit, but some visits can be arranged by request.

“I once had a woman stop me on my way in. She said that she was coming in for surgery in a week or two and wanted to know how she could get a visit from Holly,” recalls Ed. “I told her that after her surgery, once her doctor cleared her to have a pet visit, she could just talk to her regular nurse and that they would arrange a pet visit for her.”

Bailey coordinates with the hospital units to ensure they are approved for animal visitation and trains staff to become liaisons. Each area of the hospital that is approved for visitation is required to have a pet liaison who takes the dog and owner from room to room to visit with patients. Currently, there are liaisons trained in 11 units throughout UNC Hospitals.

Each patient benefits in different ways from pet therapy, explains Bailey. The companionship of the dogs offers comfort for those who can’t be at home or spend time with their own pets. For others, the dogs provide motivation to do physical therapy.

The benefits of the popular Pet Partners program extend beyond the patients who get visits, says Bailey. “Everyone in the hospital feels better when a Pet Partner stops by.” 

Published in the Well Magazine