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  • Stephanie M. Moore

Hospital’s therapy dogs bring cheer to patients

"It brings a little bit of home into the hospital." — Marion Haynes



Lying in her hospital bed, the patient breaks into a smile as soon as the energetic, 38-pound Australian shepherd/border collie mix enters the room.


"It brings a little bit of home into the hospital." — Marion Haynes

Ears erect and tail wagging, she visits three waiting room areas Nov. 27, then moves on to patient rooms.

“It’s a cheerful thing when a dog comes to visit,” patient Sharon Keaton says. “It makes you feel better.”

A volunteer with Fauquier Hospital’s pet therapy program for almost three years, Sassie has comforted and brought smiles to countless patients, family members and employees.

“Because she’s so gregarious, it’s been very rewarding for both of us,” owner and handler Kathryn “Kath” Gilman says.

Patients smile as they pet Sassie or watch her perform eight different tricks with Ms. Gilman, including sit, shake, turn, weave through legs and take a bow. Some get to reward the 7-year-old pup with cheese treats.

Each patient visit lasts about five minutes.

Ms. Gilman regularly does agility training with Sassie in her spare time.

Nine other dogs of various sizes and breeds — from a Shetland sheepdog to a Dalmatian — also participate in the pet therapy program at Fauquier Hospital. Each has an assigned day and time.

A dog visits the hospital almost every day, including holidays.

“I wanted to volunteer with her when I retired from the federal government,” Ms. Gilman says. “This was perfect. She’s an extrovert and always likes seeing people.”

The pair works together with hospital pet representative Tiffany Merkley, who asks patients if they want a visit with Sassie before she enters the room.

Nancy Scholl appreciates Monday’s visit because she has a Bernese mountain dog at home.

“I think it’s a wonderful program,” Ms. Scholl says.

“It brings a little bit of home into the hospital,” says her daughter, Marion Haynes.

Physical therapist Julie Royal and several volunteers started the pet therapy program in 2001, according to facilitator Sheryl Vollrath.

“We really think of them as our goodwill ambassadors,” Ms. Vollrath says.

All participating canines must get certification through Therapy Dogs International or The Alliance of Therapy Dogs before joining the hospital program. During visits they must remain leashed.

Owners also must bath and groom their dogs no more than 24 hours before to their visits.

Hospital pet therapy programs decrease pain and stress while improving a patient’s overall mood, according to a 2009 study that the National Institutes of Health published.

Ms. Gilman recalls how a child in terrible pain at the hospital stopped crying for about 30 seconds when she started petting Sassie.

“If I made a person smile in a day, then it was worth it,” Ms. Gilman says.

“In all these years, there hasn’t been one day when we haven’t heard someone say, ‘You’ve made my day’,” Ms. Vollrath says.

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