Markian Hawryluk
The Bulletin

When the St. Charles Health System went live with a stressful switch to a new electronic health records system last year, they brought in the dogs.

Concerned the change might leave doctors and nurses on edge, hospital officials arranged for teams of therapy dogs and volunteers to visit the staff, allowing a staff a momentary reprieve from the technological challenge to pat a head, scratch an ear or rub a belly.

Pet therapy has been used by hospitals across the country to help relieve the stress and anxiety of a hospital stay for patients. But St. Charles has taken that one step further, using its stable of 35 therapy dogs to care for its staff as well.

“They’re stressed too,” said Anita Read, therapy dog coordinator at St. Charles.

Hospital-based pet therapy programs are generally aimed at helping patients with the stress of a hospital stay. But one of the first times Read brought her dog, Sunshine, to the hospital, one of the doctors got down on the floor to play with the dog.

“He really, really appreciated it. The nurses appreciated it too,” Read said. “So we let all the teams know we’re here for staff, too. We’re here for families, for guests, we’re here for everybody in the hospital.”

The hospital’s volunteers and their dogs now visit multiple times each day in Bend and most days in Redmond. The program launched in Prineville in April, and is looking to start in Madras next year. Even the hospital’s billing department gets a visit.

“They’re amazing,’ said Lauren Coehlo, an emergency room nurse at St. Charles Bend, after interacting with Sarge, a handsome boxer with his name embroidered on an olive drab collar. “It’s like our favorite part of the day.”

Coehlo said the staff see the dogs at least once per shift. The dogs’ photos are posted on the wall of the emergency room, and she knows many of them by name.

“Most of them,” she said. “You can’t really miss Clyde.”

Clyde is a Newfoundland, a breed described by the American Kennel Club as “strikingly large” with a “sweet, patient, devoted” temperament.

The dogs are all someone’s pet, and both dog and owner must be registered by a pet therapy association and undergo extensive training.

“They’ll shadow a team, and we’ll talk about what they’re doing, where to place the dog and what kind of things to consider when you go into a patient’s room,” Read said.

It usually takes two to three supervised visits before the pair is ready to venture out on their own.

“It’s a strange environment for dogs,” she explains. “Weird floor, weird sounds, weird smells, a lot of chaos.”

Only dogs who have been in the program for six months and go through additional specialized training are allowed into the emergency room. “They have to be really stable,” Read said. “They have to be even more calm than some of the other dogs.”

The therapy dog program follows strict protocols to ensure their dogs aren’t a source of infection. All the dogs are bathed before their visit. They get a fecal test every year and must have their rabies shot documented at the hospital. The owners carry hand sanitizer with them for everyone who interacts with the dog.

Sarge and his owner, Jennifer Duval, have volunteered at the hospital since last year. Three years ago, Duval’s father-in-law was in the intensive care unit for a week, and while they were in the waiting room, a therapy dog team came by.

“It was the bright spot of a really long week,” she said. “I decided when everything settled down that Sarge and I were going to do that. He’s the perfect dog for it. He’s never met a stranger.”

All of the therapy volunteers have a poignant story of a special patient interaction. Earlier this year, Duval visited the ICU waiting room. As soon as he turned the corner, a woman saw him and started crying. Her father, who was very ill, grew up with boxers. When it’s time to go, he told his family, I want my mom and a boxer waiting for me on the other side.

“We all cried,” Duval said.

Several years ago, Read was visiting a hospital in Texas with her first therapy dog, a schipperke named Gee Bee. They had been asked to visit an elderly gentlemen who appeared not at all happy to be there.

“He didn’t want anything to do with my little girl, Gee Bee,” she recalled. “He didn’t want to pet her, brush her or throw her a treat. He mostly ignored us.”

But Read kept trying if only because the specialist had asked for their help. She told the man how Gee Bee was named for the racing airplane that won the 1932 Thompson Trophy race in Cleveland, piloted by Jimmy Doolittle. As a puppy, she was short, fat with stubby landing gear and no tail. She had the profile of a Gee Bee racer.

The man’s countenance visibly changed.

“I know Jimmy Doolittle,” he said “I flew with him in World War II.”

The man began telling Read his war stories, playing with Gee Bee, tossing her treats.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about therapy dogs,” Read said. “You never know where the experience or the connection will take you. Or what will trigger a memory.”

St. Charles once billed itself as an animal-friendly hospital, allowing visitors to bring their pets to patient rooms. People brought everything from dogs and cats to lizards. There was even an llama sighting at one point. But when staff had to clean up urine or feces in the lobby, infectious disease doctors put an end to it. About five years ago, they closed the hospital to outside pets, and required the pet therapy teams to stay in designated areas.

But that meant the dogs couldn’t go to patient rooms. After some lobbying, the hospital allowed the therapy dogs broader access.

Pet therapy is used in thousands of hospitals nationwide, and there’s good evidence the programs work. Interacting with dogs has been shown to lower blood pressure and cardiovascular health, slows breathing in anxious patients, and helps people relax. One study found that a 12-minute visit from a dog helped heart failure patients lower their blood pressure, reduce levels of harmful hormones and decrease anxiety more than a visit by a human volunteer or being left alone.

“I think they kind of give us the same kind of comfort,” said Ellen Levesque, a nurse at St. Charles Bend. “It’ sort of a break from the stress and the tension of the daily work grind. When the staff feels like they need to vent or get a little comfort themselves, they can go and embrace the dogs.”

Jack Barron, who volunteers for the program with his dog, Shane, was the director of the UCLA People Animal Connection Program. When he left in 2012, that program had about 70 volunteer teams making some 900 visits per month.

“Working in a hospital is extremely stressful,” Barron said. “The attention we would receive just walking down the corridors was overwhelming. I found that taking a few minutes — sometimes even less — visiting the staff members really made a difference.” •