Hospital offers pet therapy program

1 of 3

Marie Boswell pets therapy dog Elsie on Wednesday at Nash General Hospital.


Staff Writer

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Patients at Nash UNC Health Care may receive visits from four-legged therapists now that the hospital has introduced its new Caring Canines of Nash program.

The new pet therapy program is designed to provide short visits, comfort and enjoyment to patients who love dogs, according to a press release from the hospital. The hospital is using a type of pet therapy known as animal-assisted activity, which involves a specially trained dog and its handler spending 10 to 15 minutes with a patient who has requested the visit

“Research has shown that pet therapy can provide great benefits to patients through reducing stress and anxiety, lowering blood pressure and generally uplifting spirits,” Amy Winham, director of service and operational excellence at Nash UNC Health Care, said in the release.

The Telegram visited the hospital Wednesday to see the new pet therapy program in action. Elsie, a 6-year-old purebred Cavalier King Charles spaniel was on duty that day, with her handler and owner, Tamara Dengler, who serves as the volunteer coordinator of the pet therapy program.

Dengler said Elsie, who has experience working with the reading program at the Harold D. Cooley Library in Nashville, is registered as a therapy dog with Pet Partners. Lily, an American pit bull terrier who works with her handler, Tosha Aldridge, is the other half of the current Caring Canines of Nash team. Lily is registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Both Pet Partners and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs are accredited national organizations.

“Elsie is an ideal pet therapy dog because she has such a sweet temperament,” Dengler said.

Marie Boswell had been a patient at Nash UNC Health Care for about a week when Elsie came to her room to visit on Wednesday, and she was particularly missing her own poodle, which she described affectionately as a “little bossy.” Boswell’s eyes lit up when Elsie perched on her lap.

“You are so beautiful,” Boswell told Elsie, as she stroked her fur. “It is very nice for you to go around and see people. You made me feel so good!”

For Boswell, having a pet visit her seemed a natural part of her treatment plan.

“I think God made animals to help people,” Boswell said.

Reports from The Mayo Clinic indicate that a few minutes spent petting a dog and talking with its handler can bring on a “happiness bounce” for many patients, where they report feeling less tired or stressed, a little more optimistic and are thrilled about having a story to share with visitors. Family members and friends who sit in on dog visits, as well as hospital staff, typically say they feel better, too, according to the report.

Leslie Spencer, the new director of volunteer services at the hospital, said the dogs have made a big impression at the hospital.

“The nurses are just as excited about the dogs as the patients,” Spencer said.

Nash UNC Health Care has a stringent process in place to ensure the dogs are properly cleaned, vaccinated, well-trained and screened for appropriate behavior, hospital officials said. The Mayo Clinic report also notes that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never received a report of infection from animal-assisted therapy, the press release from the hospital states.

Caring Canines of Nash is a volunteer group, and each visiting team consists of a dog and its handler. During hospital visits, dogs will always be on a short leash and the handler will accompany the dog at all times. Every dog in the program has passed an evaluation deeming it suitable for pet therapy, is at least 1 year old, readily performs basic obedience skills and has a gentle temperament suitable for hospitalized patients. Any patient who is uncomfortable with dogs can decline the service, hospital officals said.

“Research, combined with human intuition, recognizes that the greatest benefit of pet therapy may well be the welcome distraction that brings smiles to patients, family members and staff,” Winham said.

For more information on Caring Canines of Nash, call 252-962-8118.