A new therapy program at Higgins General Hospital in Bremen is proving that man’s best friend can also be great medicine.
Hobby, a 6-year-old golden retriever, is the first dog to be a part of the hospital’s new pet therapy program, bringing smiles to faces, comfort to patients and a healing presence to the Tanner hospital facility.
Pet therapy helps patients who are dealing with an illness or health issues cope while they’re in the hospital.
Hobby recently spent a day at Higgins General Hospital providing affection and companionship to patients and staff members alike. One person who was particularly excited to welcome Tanner’s new charming, furry, four-legged friend was 76-year-old patient Elizabeth Rego.
“I love dogs, so I was excited when I heard that a therapy dog was coming to visit,” said Rego.
A few days prior to Hobby’s visit, Rego had fallen and fractured her hip, causing her to spend several days recovering on the hospital’s Far West unit.
She said Hobby’s visit helped lift her spirits and even helped with her physical rehabilitation.
“Hospitals aren’t an ideal place where people want to be, and this program is going to help patients keep their mind off their troubles and their pain,” said Rego. “It’s really great; you intermingle with a sweetie like Hobby for a little while and you forget about everything else. I have two dogs of my own, and they’ve been a very big part of my family. My son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren moved in with me when my husband passed away in August. My son told me that my dog Scooby likes to go into my room and lie on my bed when I’m not there. That’s one of the great things about pets; they provide unrequited, unconditional love.”
Love, joy and emotional support aren’t the only things pet therapy offers: many studies have shown how pet therapy can provide many other health benefits, too.
“Pet therapy changes the atmosphere and makes people feel at ease and less stressed,” said Melanie Brittain, Hobby’s handler and a career-long dog trainer and breeder from Douglas County. “It’s actually been shown that these sorts of interactions with a pet releases endorphins and helps make us feel better, which can help to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and improve mental health. And that can be very beneficial and healthy — especially in the hospital environment.”
Pet therapy isn’t just limited to patients. Hobby also paid visits to hospital staff members all over the facility, bringing a little extra joy to their day as well.
“It was wonderful having Hobby visit and watching everyone’s faces light up when they saw him,” said Tiffany McPherson, a nursing assistant on the Far West unit. “Usually, our patients are here for about 14 days, and we know it can get depressing sometimes being in the hospital for that long. Hobby brought a little extra joy to our patients’ day, and I love seeing my patients happy.”
Being a pet therapy dog is a huge responsibility. Before becoming a registered pet therapy animal, Hobby had to complete many hours of training to be ready for duty.
Brittain said that each therapy animal must pass a rigorous test to ensure he or she can perform their duties in any environment and among any distractions, such as the sounds of hospital machinery and medical equipment.
“There’s really no end to the places that people have asked therapy dogs to come,” said Brittain. “Hobby has been in elementary schools and middle schools. He’s worked with the local Special Olympics, the Douglas County Juvenile Court Therapy Dog Program, various nursing homes, local libraries and behavioral health organizations. He is also in the Read Education Assistance Dogs (READ) program. We’ve volunteered all over, and it’s great that we can spend time here, too. Hobby just loves children and the people he visits, and he’s had such a wonderful time visiting here at the hospital.”
Together Hobby and Brittain have spent thousands of hours volunteering in pet-assisted programs around the state.
In addition to Hobby, Brittain is also the handler of seven other canines that provide animal-assisted services throughout the community, including two other therapy dogs, three search and rescue K-9s, one lost pet search dog and one Bio Detection Dog.
Hobby’s partner, Biba, a 10-year-old golden retriever, and their 5-year-old puppy, Hannah, are therapy dogs, too. Hobby has a 3-year-old puppy, Chece, who is training to become a search and rescue dog. Brittain said she hopes to one day have Biba and Hannah volunteering as therapy animals at Tanner’s hospitals just like Hobby.
Brittain loves that she and her dogs can help make a difference in someone’s life.
“I love dogs,” said Brittain. “Everything I do with my dogs, I do to serve the community. I love to use my dogs in some way that will benefit other people and the community in some way, and that’s been my life.”
Higgins General Hospital’s pet therapy program has been in the making for close to two years, according to the Rev. Johanna Cook, Tanner chaplain and coordinator of the Bremen hospital’s pet therapy program.
Cook said some of the biggest concerns in bringing the program to the hospital involved safety and sanitation. She said that she wanted to ensure the program would be in compliance with Tanner’s standards and policies, so she engaged Tanner’s volunteer services, risk management and infection prevention departments to help bring the program online.
“When we were planning the program, we researched many organizations that train dogs, the criteria for therapy dogs, potential local volunteers and even pet therapy programs at other hospitals,” said Cook. “A lot of thoughtful planning went into this program, and it is exciting to see all that work come to fruition and become something that is going to make a difference in the care we provide our patients and the morale and well-being of our staff. I don’t think that there is a patient or a staff member who couldn’t benefit from interacting with a pet therapy dog. It can provide a little extra motivation and will help add little more joy to the day. I am really looking forward to seeing the program grow.”
Currently, due to certain standards, pet therapy will be available only in designated, pre-approved areas, but Cook said that she hopes to expand the program to more patient areas and other Tanner facilities in the future.
Cook also said that pet therapy sessions will be held regularly starting in June 2018, and a schedule of visitation days and times is forthcoming. Higgins General Hospital’s pet therapy program is a part of the hospital’s volunteer services program.
For more information about pet therapy services at Higgins General Hospital, including a schedule for when pet therapy service will be available, call Cook at 770.812.9461 or email HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected]” [email protected].