Several hospitals in the region, including Overlake, Children’s and Swedish, use therapy dogs. The animals listen attentively as children read to them, lay a head on the shoulder of the infirm and ease the tension in a room full of anxious family.
During a recent afternoon shift change on the oncology floor at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, the usual suspects crowded the hallway: nurses, aides, visitors, patients in wheelchairs towing IV poles.
But one visitor quickly attracted a circle of admirers: Viansa, a yellow lab with soft ears and understanding eyes.
Viansa is part of a team of five certified therapy dogs who visit the hospital weekly with their handlers to bring patients a measure of calm and reassurance. Several hospitals in the region, including Seattle Children’s and Swedish Medical Center, have added therapy dogs to their ranks of volunteers.
The dogs listen attentively as children read to them, lay a head on the shoulder of the infirm and ease the tension in a room full of anxious family members.
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Karen Keenan, Viansa’s handler and a nurse herself, said that being in the hospital is often a difficult time in a person’s life, scary for both the patient and the family. A dog can offer comfort and unconditional love.
She recalled a past visit to a hospital room.
“One family was surrounding the dying patient. Viansa went from person to person. They were loving on her, crying,” she said.
Viansa was trained as a puppy to be a Guide Dog for the Blind, but she had a spot on her own eye that veterinarians worried would become a cataract. A blind dog couldn’t lead the blind, Keenan said, but her temperament — easygoing and well-behaved — made her a perfect therapy dog.
To become part of Overlake’s dog-therapy team, a dog must be at least a year old, be certified as a therapy dog, and undergo additional training in hospital procedures and protocol.
Brenda Epstein, Overlake’s resource specialist, said the dogs have to have excellent behavior, obey commands and remain calm in the presence of noise and sudden movements.
It might seem counterintuitive to introduce a dog into a hospital’s sterile environment, but Epstein said the dogs are bathed and brushed before they arrive for their shift. And the handlers themselves use hand sanitizer both before and after entering a patient’s room. She notes that the dogs can’t visit isolation rooms, where the risk of infection is high.
Each dog that completes the hospital training receives a yellow bandanna and an Overlake photo ID badge.
“I put on my clothes (an Overlake polo shirt and khaki slacks), she puts on her scarf, and she knows we’re going to work,” said Keenan, who noted that Viansa is a former Overlake Volunteer of the Month.
Truitt, a black and white sheltie, divides his time between Overlake, the Swedish Medical Center Issaquah Campus and several nursing homes on the Eastside. His handler, Laurie Wilson, said she loves pets and had experienced the joy they could bring.
“I knew how much they helped me, calming me, bringing a smile to my face,” Wilson said.
She recalled a hospital shift several years ago at Overlake when a nurse asked if she and Truitt could visit one more room. When they walked in, Wilson said the man’s eyes were half-closed and he was lying quite still. She put a towel on the bed beside him and placed Truitt on the towel.
“The man started to stroke him, saying, ‘Nice dog. Good boy.’ And then, ‘You’re my angel, you and your dog.’” After the visit, Wilson led Truitt from the room, but the dog dug in his heels and wouldn’t go beyond the door. Wilson said he kept looking back, as if he didn’t want to leave the man’s side.
Allison Mollner, who handles Charlie, a 3-year-old mini Australian labradoodle, recalled a similar visit the previous week to an older man on the floor for heart patients. His sight was poor, and his physical condition seemed fragile, so she held Charlie in her lap and guided the man’s hand to the dog.
After a minute, the man asked, “What kind of song would Charlie like?” He then started singing in a beautiful voice from a repertoire of barbershop-quartet songs. A visitor arrived, another quartet member, and together the men harmonized on another song.
“I don’t know if we would have had that moment if I hadn’t had Charlie,” Mollner said.
Keenan, leading Viansa through the Overlake halls on her leash, said that a nonverbal patient will get happy at the sight of a dog. A crabby patient will cheer up, making the patient more cooperative with hospital staff. One charge nurse wasn’t into dogs, Keenan said. Now she stashes treats in her bottom drawer.
‘Made my day’
During the rounds on the oncology floor, an older male patient, Dewitt Thorgerson, said he’d been looking forward to Viansa’s visit. He’d been in the hospital more than a month.
“If she didn’t come, I’d want to know why,” said Thorgeson, leaning so far forward in the chair beside his hospital bed to pet the dog that he set off an alarm. Viansa moved in closer so Thorgeson didn’t have to reach so far. Keenan slipped the man dog treats so Thorgeson could reward Viansa for sitting and shaking hands.
Across the hall, patient Kathy Barnes got one look at the dog in the doorway and thumped her palm against her heart. From her hospital bed, she called, “C’mere, baby. Soft, beautiful girl.”
Barnes removed the oxygen tubes from her nose so she could nuzzle with Viansa. They talked for a while, Barnes face above her hospital gown was bright and animated. She called to her husband in the hall, so he could meet the dog, too.
“They do wonderful things for the spirit,” she said. “She made my whole day.”