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Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Rockwall spreads the love with pet therapy

(ROCKWALL, TX – Feb. 11, 2017) As the popular Beatles tune goes, “All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.” And love is exactly what Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Rockwall is bringing to both patients and staff members through its Pet Therapy program.

During a two-hour time period  twice a week, volunteer pet handlers with Pet Partners bring their adorable (and well-trained) dogs for a visit to the hospital to provide a little TLC for the patients, their families and hospital staff members.

“Pet therapy helps to decrease patients’ blood pressure and calm their nerves when they’re about to have a procedure, or when they’re just missing their own pets at home,” said Karen Casey, Texas Health Rockwall’s Manager of Culture and Care. “We’ve also found that it’s just as beneficial for the staff. Working in a hospital setting can be stressful for caregivers. Taking a few minutes to pet and love the animals decreases everybody’s stress level and sets the tone for the day.”

Pet Partners is a national nonprofit registering handlers of multiple species as volunteer teams providing animal-assisted interactions. Casey said handlers volunteering for Pet Therapy at Texas Health Rockwall go through the hospital’s volunteer application process complete with background checks and a two-day orientation, and then get to shadow an experienced pet handler with the program to learn the ins and outs of pet therapy.

Three teams each consisting of a handler and a dog visit Texas Health Rockwall from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. twice a week –Wednesday and Friday.

“We first check to make sure the patient wants to have a visit,” Casey said. “The volunteers will check in at the nurse’s station and with our house supervisor to see who might benefit from pet therapy that day. And they’ll let them know who might want a visit without giving away any patient information.”

Tina Brandon, a volunteer handler with Pet Partners, said she and her four-year old rescued female Dachshund named Rylee enjoyed their trip through Texas Health Rockwall, their first time providing pet therapy at a hospital.

“It’s a thrill getting to watch people’s faces light up, to see nurses become destressed when they’re having a hard shift,” Tina said. “A lot of the hospice people that I’ve worked with are animal lovers, but they can’t have their animals or pets come into the hospitals to visit them. So they get to pet Rylee and pretend she’s their own pet. That’s nice for them, that they were animal lovers in life and even though they’re nearing the end of their life they can still love on animals.”

The dogs often lead the handlers during their visit, pointing their noses towards a room or trotting up to passersby in hopes of some affectionate attention.

“Rylee has a sense of who needs her,” Tina said. “Sometimes we’ll be walking by somebody and she’ll just pull, and want to go over to be petted.”

Tina said the dogs and their handlers must pass a rigorous 22-part test focusing on skills and behavioral aptitude. In order to continue volunteering in pet therapy, they must take and pass the test every two years. She said although about 97 percent of its therapy animals are dogs, Pet Partners has many different varieties of animals which are a part of its program, including birds, rabbits, cats, llamas and even a therapy pig.

“We have a Juliana pig in our program that can do 50 different tricks,” Tina said.

According to Casey, while the hospital will stick to strictly dogs for its pet therapy program, the dogs and their handlers can visit any area of the hospital they like except for surgery and isolation rooms. ICU and Labor and Delivery are not off limits either.

“That might be very comforting, especially for those facing a loss. You can have that animal there to pet and love on during that time of grief,” Casey said. “We’re really focused on relationship-based care – taking care of ourselves, our coworkers, our patients and their loved ones. Pet therapy is something that fits in beautifully with all of that.”

Story and photos by Austin Wells, Blue Ribbon News.

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