Pet Therapy

Bringing extra TLC to patients’ bedside

It’s almost instantaneous, the reaction patients have when a Hartford HealthCare pet therapy animal trots into their hospital rooms.

Even the sickest — like Marc Sintes on Hartford Hospital’s Bliss 11 ICU — light up. Sintes caught sight of Lily Rose, lifted up to snuggle closer by her owner, Ken Jurs, whose wife, Joanne, is an Ayer Neuroscience Institute administrative assistant.

Six-year-old Lily is a Cavalier King Charles with what Joanne Jurs calls “a wonderful disposition.” Every week, the couple brings her to visit patients and staff, with Ken lifting her to eye level with those in a bed.

“Everybody seems to get a lot out of it,” she says, adding, “I have seen ICU patients who are
in and out of it. The caregiver takes the patient’s hand to pet Lily and I see a smile. It just chills you.”

Visiting with Lily, who sometimes dons costumes, cheers the Jurses too.

“It brings us a lot of joy to see her make them happy. It puts your own pain in perspective. Some days, we shed a lot of tears,” Joanne Jurs says.

Research touts the benefits of animals for mental and physical health, according to Jeremy Driscoll, a retired Charlotte Hungerford Hospital social worker who visits regularly with his five- year-old Standard Poodle Theo.

“There are profound results to pet therapy,” he says, quoting the study “Creating a Healing and Therapeutic Environment with a Pet Therapy Program” which demonstrated how patients experienced “significant decreases in pain, respiratory rate and negative mood state and a significant increase in perceived energy level” after pet therapy.

Driscoll, who visits staff and patients on the fourth and fifth floors, says he often chats with patients about present and past pets.

“One man was so awestruck because he’d had that kind of dog. Whatever was going on for him fell away,” he recalls.

Can your Fido be a therapy dog?

Not every pet is suited as a therapy animal. Volunteer services coordinators at different HHC facilities offer insight into what makes a good candidate. Pet therapy animals should be:

– “Playful when cued but those who also can be calm and gentle,” according to Linda Simses, volunteer services coordinator at St. Vincent’s Medical Center

– Affectionate

– Obedient to the handler

– Gentle

– Friendly and enjoy human contact

– Able to be around noise and distractions

– Able to tolerate hospital-like smells

– Eager to be petted

Laura Libby, manager of volunteer services in the Central Region, stresses that pet handlers need to also be extroverted and people-oriented individuals who respect all types of people.

Photo: Lily Rose, a certified Hartford HealthCare therapy dog, and her owner, volunteer Ken Jurs (right) visit patient Marc Sintes (left) in Hartford Hospital’s Bliss 11 ICU.

Theo, who Driscoll says “works a room like a Vegas entertainer,” captures people with his gaze.

“It’s a look that says ‘You have intimate worth and so do I.’ It’s important for people to bask in that moment and it helps one’s outlook on the next moment,” he says.

That emotional connection is what Bowser, a six-year-old Newfoundland, shares with clients at Rushford, where his owner Christina McCoy brings him to visit. He hangs around her office, visiting with clients and sits in on group therapy sessions she runs.

McCoy says as she watched Bowser’s personality develop as a puppy, she saw an animal that “genuinely loves to be around people all day.”

“There are so many benefits to bringing Bowser in. He is a great ice-breaker — I can talk to clients about their own dogs. It’s a great way to build rapport and ease clients into talking,” she says.

He also provides great comfort and support for clients with anxiety or who are down or having a bad day. Spending time with Bowser, she says, “generally brightens their mood which, in turn, helps them engage in treatment.”

A large dog, Bowser says hello to each person in a group and sometimes picks one person and lies on their feet. One client told McCoy that Bowser went right to him on a particularly bad day and stayed with him as if he knew the man needed support.

“Clients often don’t remember my name but they remember Bowser!” she laughs.

patients at Backus Hospital always remember visits with Jake, too. The three-year-old Irish Wolfhound stands beside the bed and connects eye-to-eye with sick patients, according to owner Karen Eberle, a CareConnect analyst in Farmington.

“He literally pulls me to people,” she laughs, adding that while patients pet him, she’ll talk to them about their dogs.

“It’s a nice diversion for them. They usually light right up!” says Eberle, who has been visiting different healthcare agencies with her dogs since 1995 and at Backus since 2011.

“It almost feels selfish because it makes your heart feel so good to know you made someone feel good. You can just see the stress come off them. It’s a distraction and their smiles come back, even for just a few minutes.”

By Jeff Evans

Backus Pet Therapy Volunteer Karen Eberl, who works for Information Technology Services at Hartford HealthCare, greeted staff and patients at Backus during a recent pet therapy session with her massive Irish Wolfhound “Jake.”

Karen has done pet therapy work for more than 20 years, always with Irish Wolfhounds, which she calls her “heart” animals.

HHC pet therapy facts

– Hartford HealthCare entities have 53 registered pet therapy animals: 52 dogs and one donkey.

– Pet therapy animals are registered through each hospital’s volunteer office and wear a badge like any other volunteer.

– Mary Brown, head of volunteers at Backus, says they “explored other possibilities” such as cats and rabbits, but they carry diseases humans can contract.

– Qualified animals must have recent vet assessments and be groomed, their nails trimmed and fur brushed before each visit.

– Most animals visit a few times a month, some come in weekly.

– All animals must be trained and certified for pet therapy.

– Pets are “interviewed” and tested by things, like dropping bedpans to see if they’re too jumpy for the job. Brown says she also likes to see that animals have visited other community facilities, such as skilled nursing homes or schools.

– Pet therapy animals must always be leashed and accompanied by their handlers, who must be at least 18 years old.

– Some hospitals restrict animals from patient beds, but Brown says smaller dogs are allowed on beds at Backus on special pads.

– Eileen Pelletier, director of volunteers at Hartford Hospital, says “Welcome Waggers” are often deployed to the main lobby to greet staff, patients and visitors. Her office will soon be adding pet therapy teams to the Manchester Cancer Center and Community Care Center on Jefferson Street.

– Volunteer offices also field special requests. Last year, Pelletier says a patient who was “actively dying” wanted a last visit with a dog. She called the teams and two handlers brought their dogs in that day and one the next, right before the patient passed away. “The family was very appreciative. They knew how much it meant to her,” she says.

– At St.Vincent’s, pets are “enthusiastically” welcomed to the rehabilitation floor where they get patients moving.

Backus patient Tori Clark greets Jake on one of his visits.

Photos by Jeff Evans and Chris Rakoczy

Pet therapy dogs Mugsly, left, owned by Lynn Snyder, and Bella, right, owned by Judy Pepin, were a big hit at the Backus Cancer Survivors Day.

Photos by Jeff Evans and Chris Rakoczy

Theo, a comfort dog, and his owner Jeremy Driscoll at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital.

Photos by Jeff Evans and Chris Rakoczy