Watch a video of a pet-facilitated therapy session.
Most dogs are trained to sit and fetch. Some dogs are trained to shake and roll over. Gracie, a golden retriever, is trained to comfort and console.
Gracie is one of five certified therapy dogs who make weekly trips to visit patients at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha.
Gracie and two other volunteer dogs, Roxie and Halle, visited 6-year-old Isabella Poppe twice during her two-week stay at Children's in January.
“How do you not love a dog?” said Matt Poppe, Isabella's dad. “It puts a smile on her face. She hasn't had a smile on her face in a day and a half.”
The visits are part of the hospital's pet-facilitated therapy program. Such programs are based in large part on studies that show that patients, like Isabella, who interact with animals exhibit reduced stress levels and improved emotional well-being.
“The primary purpose of the program is to provide familiarity, to make the environment as less stressful as possible for the children,” said Terry Patterson, Children's Family Resources Manager. “We find the dogs do that.”
Melissa Wilke is one of Children's child life specialists who facilitates room-to-room visits on Thursdays. A boy named Chase made dog toys for the visiting animals, Wilke said, and another told a volunteer he was saving up to buy his own dog. He already has saved $129.
“They look forward to them coming,” Wilke said. “If they're sleeping, they'll perk right up and smile and be excited. It helps them get up and going for the day.”
Like Children's, the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha also hosts weekly dog visits.
“Our population is pretty unique in that (a lot of these) kiddos are uprooted from their family and their homes and their own animals so it's really awesome to have (the dogs) here and get to have that companionship at the hospital,” said Kandra Dorsey, a Child Life Specialist at the medical center.
Naturally, the dogs love the visits, too, dog owner Julie McKinney said. It's in their nature, she said. McKinney reports to the medical center each week with Tulip, her Welsh corgi. Fellow volunteer Linda Kelsey alternates bringing one of her two French bulldogs.
“The dog who doesn't get to go mopes,” Kelsey said with a laugh.
Kelsey began volunteering at the Nebraska Medical Center four years ago, six years after the program began in 2001.
Children's program began informally in the late 1980s through the hospital's volunteer services department. Nancy Ethington, Gracie's owner, and two other volunteers streamlined the program to make it an official hospital service in 1995.
“I do this strictly for the kids. ... Many of these children are very ill. If we can provide a diversion for them in such a short visit, it makes it very worthwhile,” Ethington said.
“The child will pet (Gracie) or hug her and more often than not it brings a real smile to the child's face.”
Gracie, like all therapy dogs, was trained and evaluated before she could join the other canine volunteers. Outside organizations certify instructors, who in turn license volunteer animals to participate in therapy programs.
Georgann Pesavento, who volunteers with her pugs at Children's, is a licensed instructor through Therapy Dogs Inc. She determines whether prospective volunteer dogs are compatible with the program by observing them and their owners in a health care facility.
Pesavento evaluates the dogs' temperament toward people and behavior around other participating pets. She also ensures the dogs are well-behaved in a hospital setting, though formal obedience training is not required. Squeaky wheelchairs, elevator doors and new scents, for example, won't startle the animals she approves. After three or four observations, the dog is granted or denied certification.
Therapy Dogs Inc., Delta Society and Therapy Dogs International have certified more than 40,000 handler-animal teams to serve in therapy programs across the country. Outside of health-related facilities, volunteer teams also visit schools, libraries, courthouses and crisis centers. Several volunteer dogs were called to Ground Zero to provide comfort to the men and women working in the rescue effort, said Bill Kueser, Delta Society's vice president of marketing. Health care providers, however, remain the most common institutions to incorporate animals into their services, he said.
Pet programs can be theraputic for parents as well, said Patterson of Children's.
“When children are less stressed, parents are less stressed. When children are more comfortable in an environment, parents are more comfortable, too,” he said.
When Gracie strolled into Isabella's room, the little girl's expression changed. A smile started to form as she reached for the retriever's fur. What looked like a lopsided grin on the 9-year-old dog's face matched Isabella's and her parents' smiles.
Gracie's visit was just in time to serve as the perfect sendoff.
Isabella was scheduled to leave shortly after the visit to go home to Hastings, Neb., where her own dog, Molly, was waiting.
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