Therapy Dog Uplifts Spirits of Patients & Elderly


By Judie Holcomb-Pack

When Teresa Hicks retired from the Winston-Salem Police Department after 29 years of service, she didn’t linger long before turning her attention to a new way to serve.

Community service was ingrained in Teresa, but now that her police service had ended, she needed to find a new way to continue to serve. She found a border collie she named “Cree” and started taking her to therapy dog classes, similar to obedience school. She met friends in the class and together they and their dogs visited senior citizens. She also took Cree to retirement homes and noticed that her visits brought joy to the residents. She could see a calming change in people as they stroked Cree.

Teresa learned that the Sticht Center of Wake Forest School of Medicine had recently opened up the opportunity for therapy dogs to visit on the rehab and psychiatry units and acute care for the elderly floors. She applied and was accepted, so off she and Cree went to visit patients and spread some canine joy.

In 2004 Brenner Children’s Hospital decided to allow therapy dogs and she and her dogs, Cree and Nike, were accepted to visit there, too. It was the beginning of a long-term relationship where Teresa could serve in a very special way. At that time there were only two therapy dogs approved for visits; now there are over 30.

There is more to bringing a dog into a hospital setting than just applying to do so. A national therapy dog organization offers certification to therapy dogs, as well as liability insurance. It takes several months of working with and training dogs before you can determine if they have the personality to be a good therapy dog, and at least six months before they can be tested for certification. Teresa is now working with Ruthie and Sky, training them to respond to commands and to be relaxed around children and adults in different situations.

Hospital therapy dogs must be well trained in many areas, as well as having a calm disposition. They are trained to adjust to the different parts of the hospital, such as ICU with its sounds, bells and alarms. They must get used to being around all types of medical equipment. And in particular, they must be able to sense a patient’s needs. Just petting a therapy dog can bring down a patient’s blood pressure, lower their pain level, and deepen their breathing.

Teresa has experienced positive changes in both adults and children when visiting with her dogs. Nike once got in bed with a young boy who had been unresponsive and snuggled next to him. The boy reached out slowly and laid his hand on the dog, the first action his mother had seen him make in several days.

Therapy dogs can also provide a diversion from impending procedures. Teresa has found that petting a dog can distract young patients from procedures, such as drawing blood, so that it isn’t so frightening. Parents are also grateful for the dog’s visits and appreciate the joy they bring to their children.

Hospital Child Life Specialists must have physician’s and parent’s approval before a therapy dog can visit a young patient. When Teresa and her dogs visit, nurses and staff direct her to patients who they feel would benefit from the therapy. Even the staff loves to visit with the dogs!

Teresa has been working with therapy dogs for 12 years and describes it as “very powerful.” She loves bringing smiles to faces and seeing the effect the dogs have on patients. “When you are in the hospital, you have to live in the moment. You cannot think about any other things that may be going on in your life,” said Teresa. “You are there to serve others and focus on their needs. When you leave, you may feel physically and emotionally exhausted, but you know that you have made a positive difference in their day,” she continued.

“There are so many needs, and so many ways to volunteer,” said Teresa. “I am in deep gratitude for the opportunity to share the human experience.”


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