New full-time UMHS therapy dogs work to improve patient health
When you walk through some University of Michigan Health system facilities, you might meet Anna and Denver, who arrived at UMHS this July. They work full days and make rounds at the hospital, visiting different medical centers and meeting new people.
However, the two are neither doctors nor patients — they’re new hospital dogs intended to provide therapeutic services and improve the wellbeing of patients and staff throughout UMHS.
Denver, a 16-month-old Labrador-golden retriever mix, and Anna, an 18-month-old golden retriever, are trained service animals cared for by Joel Maier, Mott-certified child life specialist and Rev. Lindsay Bona, manager of the UMHS Spiritual Care Department.
The dogs were purchased to supplement the existing canine program at UMHS, through which other dogs and volunteers from Therapaws of Michigan have visited patients on a requested basis since 1987. However, because those resources are somewhat limited due to a high demand, UMHS has been working to expand their canine comfort services over the last year.
The dogs require $30,000 of care each, paid for with a donation from the Laurence Polatsch Memorial Fund. Both Anna and Denver also received funding from a “puppy shower” fundraising campaign that was held when they first arrived to raise money for their daily maintenance needs, such as veterinary services and food.
The dogs received extensive training prior to starting work at UMHS, including more than a year at the Canine Assistants program and a weeklong orientation earlier in the summer with their caretakers. At training, the dogs were exposed to different types of social environments — including hospitals, grocery stores and parks — and learned basic day-to-day behaviors. Maier said the goal was to teach them how to interact with various patients and behave in public transportation settings.
According to the pet therapy organization PAWS for People, service animals and pet therapy have a number of physical and mental health benefits for patients, such as lowering blood pressure, diminishing physical pain, decreasing feelings of alienation and reducing anxiety. They can also motivate children and allow them to focus more effectively.
For similar reasons, other local volunteers and organizations have also brought their service and therapy dogs to other parts of the University, such as Shapiro Undergraduate Library or the Diag during midterms and finals week.
“Dogs bring a different element that we as humans can’t,” Maier said. “When Denver walks in the room, as a dog he’s completely non-judgmental, he’s fully loving. … When he walks in the room, that family opens up. He breaks down walls that I can’t.”
Anna has traveled throughout the health system while Denver primarily visits patients at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Maier and Bona said.
“Quite often I’ll get the response from parents, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen my child smile in a week or two weeks,’ ” Maier said.
He added that the dogs have assisted patients anxious about treatment, interacted with families staying with sick loved ones, provided fun and supportive companionship around the health system and kept the staff smiling on stressful days.
Bona said much of this success from having Denver and Anna at the hospital can be attributed to the relationship the dogs have with their owners, instilling a reciprocal sense of trust.
“They trust us to keep them safe, and therefore they’re able to be their best selves,” Bona said. “They can sense when patients and people and staff need them, and they just go up and give them love and affection.”