Wagging tails brighten lives

Zelda meets the team

Pets are more than cute companions — they can be sources of comfort, too. That’s the case whether at home or in a hospital for both patients and caregivers.

Therapy dogs come in all shapes, sizes and breeds. They may be purebreds or rescues from a local shelter, but they share a few common traits: a calm temperament and an unconditional love for every person they encounter.

The combination of a friendly wagging tail, sweet eyes and soft fur are like medicine for some, regardless of whether they are receiving treatment or working. It’s a special experience to witness the visible wave of relief that washes over a person in distress after an interaction with a dog.

Paws for People

Caroline Hunt is part of the pet therapy team that volunteers at Roper St. Francis Healthcare. She says she finds her role rewarding because it’s a chance to give back to people who contribute so much and also to brighten patients’ days.

“We spend a great deal of time with staff trying to alleviate distress, to get them a five-minute break where they can sit and pet the dog,” she says.

When it comes to interacting with patients, Hunt says just as humans have different dispositions, so do dogs. Their personality traits and breed can shape their preferences in terms of settings where they feel most comfortable. Considering these factors as well as their size, it’s up to the handler to decide how they can be best matched to the situation. For instance, a dog that might do well in a hospital might not be the best fit for a children’s camp.

These are lessons learned with time. Hunt, who has decades of experience as a handler, says becoming one requires a serious commitment on the part of the human and the dog. It starts with a certification process to become a pet therapy dog and progresses from there. Therapy dog handlers must have annual documentation of vet visits and shot records. Both the handler and dog must have the right disposition to volunteer in a hospital.

Joining the Team

“Most people start out with having a dog that they think would be good at it,” she says. “We ask them to shadow somebody without their dog to see what it’s like. We like people to be exposed to several different venues before they get too serious about it, to see if they like it. And then, usually, we refer them to people who can evaluate them and their dogs. The evaluator will watch them through several clinical settings and see how they behave. Then they complete the certification paperwork and process.”

Once handlers are certified, screened and trained, they’re cleared to join the volunteer team at Roper St. Francis Healthcare.

From here, Hunt says handlers and their dogs visit areas where patients are well enough to receive visitors. For instance, Hunt and her dog like to visit those in the inpatient oncology clinic and spread joy there. Hospital staff or patients get to visit with the dog for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes at a time.

Regardless of the amount of time spent together, according to Hunt, it’s all about the patient.

“We spend an enormous amount of time getting our handlers focused on the patient and the patient’s needs,” she says. “If the patient asks you about the dog, then you tell them about him or her, but we try to shift the attention back to the patient.”

The pet therapy program is just one of the many ways Roper St. Francis Healthcare is making a difference in the lives of patients and those who care for them. To learn more about volunteer opportunities in the Roper St. Francis Healthcare system, visit our Volunteer Information page.