TRINITY — Big smiles are contagious among Medical Center of Trinity patients and hospital staff alike every time therapy dogs visit the hospital. The hospital partnered with a local chapter of Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs Inc. with 23 members led by dog trainer Jackie Dougall. Recovering patients all have private rooms and about every modern convenience imaginable at the 236-bed hospital. Yet patients might grow wistful at times, perhaps missing their own pets back home. To keep doldrums at bay and their spirits up, patients can choose to visit with the therapy dogs. Hospital staff members also love to fuss over their four-legged friends.
Each therapy dog wears a red bandana that says “Please Pet Me.” Seven dogs are available for MCT visits. On this particular day, Dougall brings Raina, a German Shepherd. Cynthia Gifford has Emma, a rescued, 3-year-old German Shepherd. Mary Daly has a 3-year-old Shetland Sheepdog, Aoife, a Celtic word for “brilliant.” Kaci, a 5-year-old Catahoula leopard, accompanies Maggie Mayers, a registered nurse at MCT. Other dogs in the MCT program include Angel, Luna and Riley. “Oh, she is so beautiful,” patient Diane Bloom of Hudson marveled while petting Raina. While the fur of the animals is kept impeccably clean, everyone gets hand sanitizers as a precaution after the pooches visit. A therapy dog must endure about a year worth of extensive training, Dougall explained. “You can't make a therapy dog,” Dougall commented. “They're born. They've got to have that desire to be around people.” Kaci comes into Bloom's room next. Mayers asks the patient if she had ever heard of the Catahoula leopard dog breed. Bloom said no. Kaci is deaf, Mayers added. “That's amazing,” Bloom responded. “All her training was through hand signals,” Mayers explained. “If I lose her attention, I tap her side to get it back.” “I love animals,” Nicholas Venezia, a patient from New Port Richey, said as he petted Emma. “You don't know how I miss my little guys,” Venezia said about his Jack Russell terrier and dachshund at home. “It's been over a week since I've seen them.” “They offer a lot of love,” Gifford said about pets. “And you know what? They know when somebody loves them. They know it instantly.” “Oh, yeah,” Venezia heartily agreed. The therapy dogs are very well behaved, Venezia observed, unlike his Jack Russell terrier, he added with a laugh. “He's all mouth.” Therapy dogs have to be at least 1 year old, display good behavior, go through tests, exhibit a friendly and outgoing nature and have committed dog owners as volunteers, Dougall explained. Not every dog is cut out to do therapy work, Dougall added. A dog must pass tests such as walking on loose leash, becoming familiar with medical equipment, ignoring loud sounds, passing up food on the floor and getting used to canes, wheelchairs and crutches. “They have to be a passive dog,” Dougall elaborated. “They can't be a reactive dog to loud sound.” She's been involved in therapy programs with canines for about 25 years. “I'm a dog trainer by trade and all of these were my students,” Dougall said about the four dogs at MCT. The dogs and their handlers began visiting Medical Center of Trinity two days a week a few months ago. Dougall hopes to add some weekend hours and perhaps a third weekday. There is no charge for any visitation. The nonprofit organization relies on volunteers. Contributions are welcome and tax deductible. Handlers and dogs come in all ages, shapes and sizes. For more information go to www.golden-dogs.org or call Dougall at (727) 808-7524(727) 808-7524.
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“There are many physical and emotional benefits of pet therapy,” Marlene Jaime, patient experience coordinator, said in a press release. “For example, stress relief, alleviating depression, lowering blood pressure, giving a feeling of acceptance, hopefulness, comfort, and increasing overall mood.” The dogs seem to thrive on the attention as well. On the trip from their Hernando County home, Dougall says “Raina starts crying about two miles” away from the hospital in anticipation. “She's so excited.” After meeting patients, Gifford and Emma do a high-five salute for a job well done.