Pets give patients a paw-inspiring boost at St. Joseph’s

Hospital patients enjoy getting visitors, whether they’re friends, family, neighbors or church members.

Jason, left, and Journey are two of the volunteer therapy dogs at St. Joseph’s Hospital-North. The program, which began last July, now has six dogs visiting patients during the week. (Courtesy of St. Joseph's Hospital-North)

Jason, left, and Journey are two of the volunteer therapy dogs at St. Joseph’s Hospital-North. The program, which began last July, now has six dogs visiting patients during the week.
(Courtesy of St. Joseph’s Hospital-North)

But sometimes it’s the visitors on four legs that bring out the biggest smiles.

“Everybody enjoys a visit from a therapy dog,” said Ron Graff, whose Golden Retrievers, Journey and Jason, make weekly visits to St. Joseph’s Hospital-North on Van Dyke Road in Lutz. “I get comments from patients all the time that many of them are missing the pets that they have at home, and it was just great to be able to spend a little bit of time talking to the dog or petting the dog.”

Graff brings one of his dogs to either the St. Joseph’s location in Lutz or Tampa a couple of times a week, and spends about 90 minutes walking the halls and seeing if patients would like a visit from a therapy dog. Many say yes, and each session lasts up to 15 minutes as patients interact with them and enjoy a break from the routine life of a hospital stay.

Patients also like to hear information and stories about the dogs, especially Journey. Born without a front left paw, the 5-year-old gets around just fine with the help of prosthetics.

So when Journey at 75 pounds and Jason at 90 pounds make their way down the hallway, they attract attention for several reasons, and find themselves welcome in many rooms.

Graff pointed to studies showing health benefits of human interaction with pets, but said the response from seeing one of his dogs on visiting day is immediate and easy to see.

“There are certainly situations where patients are very quiet and somewhat withdrawn,” he said. “They just brighten up when the dogs come in, and as we leave, they’re clearly feeling much better about it.”

Nurses also will direct him toward patients who might be having a tough day, received difficult news, are struggling with treatment, or simply could use a visitor.

It’s not just the patients who look forward to their visits, volunteer resources auxiliary coordinator Karen Telfer said.

“At the nurse station, as soon as they see them approaching you can tell that they can’t wait to come and say hello,” she said. “They know all the dogs by name. It just seems like a real morale booster for the staff.”

There are currently six dogs in the rotation at St. Joseph’s-North — Graff’s dogs are two of them, Telfer said. Each one is trained, evaluated and certified by a nationally recognized dog therapy organization.

All of the dogs must be up-to-date on vaccinations and shots and undergo health screenings. The owners also go through normal hospital volunteer protocol.

While the pet therapy has been around for a while at the Tampa location, it’s relatively new in Lutz: St. Joseph’s-North began its program just last July. In that time, Telfer believes the program has already reaped dividends in the form of happier patients and genuine anticipation of their visits.

“It cheers them up and boosts their morale,” she said. “We’ve actually had one patient say they hoped they were still there the next week to see that dog again.”

In fact, the feedback has been so positive and implementation so easy, Telfer would like to see it expanded at some point in the future. Right now they have one service dog coming each weekday between the hours of 1 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Her goals for the program include expanding so two or three service dogs could be scheduled on those days, as well as finding possible weekend options.

Graff enjoys giving back to the community and volunteering his time, along with Journey and Jason, to benefit others. But he said the best part of the experience is being able to reflect on what they accomplish after each visit.

“My favorite part is really just seeing the reaction from patients, and after about an hour or an hour-and-a-half, heading home and knowing that we’ve been able to make at least one person feel better even though they’re in the hospital,” Graff said.

Published April 16, 2014

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