Canine therapy give patients reason to smile

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Sara Van Cleve
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Editors note - This is part two of a weekly, three-part series about service dogs, and how people who train, work with, and benefit from man’s best friend.

Being in the hospital can be a stressful time for patients and their families, but furry volunteers can help put a smile on their faces.

“I was here one day in the surgical waiting area and I was sitting, and all of a sudden this little white furball came running over and jumped in my lap,” said Roxann Ritchie of Denver. “Her name was Sissy. It was such a neat feeling. I’m sitting there waiting and waiting as my mother-in-law had open heart surgery and we were waiting. To have a little ball of fur come up, it made me feel so good.”

Ritchie’s encounter with Sissy the therapy dog introduced her to the pet therapy program at Exempla Lutheran Medical Center, 8300 W. 38th Ave., in Wheat Ridge. And for seven-and-a-half years now, she and her greyhound Lily have been part of the program.

Becoming a therapy dog was sort of a career change for Lily.

“She was a racing dog,” Ritchie said. “She made enough money when she raced to put her owner’s grandson through college.”

Though running comes natural to Lily, so does caring.

“She walks up to the person very gently,” Ritchie said. “She follows their body language. She’ll go into the room and put her head on the bed and people will pet her and she’s very good about it. And there’s times when there’s somebody whose crying or upset, she might even take her paw and start petting them. It’s amazing what they do. With her, it’s instinct. She does the work. I talk, but she does all the comforting.”

After Ritchie asks if a patient or their family would like to visit with a therapy dog, she and Lily walk in the room and the patients’ faces light up.

“You’ll see the patients that are depressed, like when we go to hospice and all and you see patients depressed, when they start petting the dogs, you see a smile,” Ritchie said. “You see them hug and love. You help them emotionally, you help them physically. It’s hard to even explain it.”

The effects of therapy dogs on patients can even go beyond simply bringing them joy and a smile to their face.

“We were standing down here one day, and this girl came running up and said “Oh my God, oh my God, you have a greyhound. I said yes, and she said `Can she come up and visit my dad? He’s not doing well. He just had quadruple bypass surgery.’ So we walked up and his stats were just all over the place. All of a sudden he started petting Lily, and all of his stats leveled off.”

Lily and Ritchie, along with 43 other dogs in the program, including Ritchie’s other two greyhounds — Munchkin and Little, both 6 and Lily’s pups — visit patients in nearly every part of the Exempla Lutheran Medical Center excluding the emergency room, surgical rooms, maternity and cafeterias.

“She loves it,” Ritchie said. “When I take out her scarf, they all three come and if she doesn’t get to go, she puts her head down and goes and pouts. They know. It’s something she really enjoys. She enjoys meeting people and being out there.”

Ritchie said when she started the program, she knew pet therapy was important, but she didn’t realize what an important role it can play in the emotional and physical healing of a patient.

“When you walk into the room and see the people’s faces light up and see the love they have and see the emotional healing going on, your heart opens up and you can’t wait to do it,” Ritchie said. “I can’t even put it into words how important it is and how it makes you feel.”

All pet therapy dogs at Exempla Lutheran Medical Center and their owners are volunteers.

To become a volunteer, interested pet owners must fill out an application, have their dog go through two veterinarian screenings to check their health and ensure they are not aggressive and attend several trainings.

“It’s more training you than the dog,” Ritchie said. “You each get your own badge and your dog get their purple scarf and then the joy starts.”

For information about how to become a pet therapy volunteer, visit www.exemplalutheran.org and click on the “About” section, or call 303-425-2142.