Wrigley is a fan favorite around Marianjoy. A twelve-year-old Golden Retriever, he's been putting a smile on patients around here for 11 years.He has something in common with many of the patients, too: he’s had surgery on both of his knees. However, it hasn't changed his sweet personality or perseverance- qualities that patients find inspirational beyond just physical effort. Wrigley's trainer/owner,Tracy Heming-Littwin, says that they always pictured Wrigley as a therapy dog. Their previous golden retriever had also been a therapy dog at Marianjoy and loved it, so Wrigley quickly followed in his paw prints.
"I remember an adult male patient in his early 20s who didn't communicate with anyone but Wrigley. I also remember a young pediatric patient in acute care at Marianjoy who just wanted to spend time with the dogs. He never wanted to go back to his room and took pictures with all of the dogs, and made cards and drawings for them."
When asked why she thinks patients respond so well to Wrigley, Tracy says: "Dogs provide unconditional love. The dogs that come to Marianjoy are all excited to be there. Wrigley is a people dog." Tracy notes. "Even during visits, therapy dogs can lower someone’s blood pressure and reduce stress. It’s like a hug."
Some of the dogs from Marianjoy's show are inspiring in other ways, too. "Paddy was previously a prizewinning race-dog, known as 'Stingray,' until his hips gave out during a race- a ligament ruptured in his back," says Jane O’Connor of her greyhound. "He dragged himself to the finish line; he was that dedicated. His racing career was over- but he found a new mission with pet therapy." O’Connor says that patients find hope and encouragement to push harder when they meet Paddy and hear his story.
Therapy has been a transformative career option for greyhounds. In the past, the dogs were bred and kept primarily for racing. An injury often also meant the end of their lives. However, rescue efforts have raised awareness, and the practice has been on the decline over the last few decades.
Greyhounds have become heroic for another medical reason, too: they may just be the answer to unlocking the treatment for osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that greyhounds and humans, especially children, have in common. Dr. C. Guillermo Couto has been leading research on the project, mapping the greyhound osteosarcoma genome and finding it very similar to that of humans. Also, as donors for other sick dogs at veterinary clinics, greyhounds have universally accepted blood. Rescue efforts for the dogs have skyrocketed, and as has the value they’ve earned beyond the racetrack.
That value is clear at Marianjoy, where Paddy spends hours with each visit making patients smile and relax. He has a special talent with engaging children with autism. His quiet and gentle nature, as well as his tall stature, makes him a natural for hospice work, too.
Chase is a mini-sheltie. Chase was selected by his owner, Darlene Hayes, as a puppy, in hopes that he would one day be a "show" dog. Darlene immediately discovered that Chase loved people and other dogs. "From the time I picked him up at the airport, he has been a pure joy to live with," she says. "He constantly has a smile on his face and a zest for life. He is always willing to try new things."
Darlene realized Chase’s true calling one day when a neighboring mom was pushing her son in his wheelchair past Darlene’s house. "Chase ran to them and jumped up to put his feet on the arm of the wheelchair so that he could lick the boy. They had never met before," she says. "That’s when I felt Chase had a special gift, and I pursued volunteering and putting him in therapy work."
Darlene says she and Chase have been happy with that decision ever since. "The patients at Marianjoy seem very receptive to the therapy dogs, and enjoy petting them and asking questions/talking about their own dogs." While Chase and the other dogs love what they do, it's not all playâ€”it's more of a mission. "I feel the therapy dogs know they are there to visit with the patients and are more than happy to do so," she says. "They make people smile."
"Ace is a very talented, funny, and clever little dog," says owner and trainer Bette McMillan of her mahogany sheltie. Ace has lived and trained with Bette since he was six months old, excelling in obedience, rally, and agility. "He has competed in these venues and earned awards and titles," says Bette. "But for both of us, the most rewarding is the title of Therapy Dog."
Bette has participated in pet therapy at Marianjoy since 1994 with three different shelties. One of her most special memories was an interaction with a stroke patient who was feeling discouraged about throwing a ball. 'He could barely lift his arm, and he wasn't sure if he could throw a ball for my dog to retrieve. I assured him that the dog would retrieve the ball, no matter where it landed. Even though the ball was thrown a very short distance, my dog promptly retrieved it and returned it to this gentleman's hand. The smile on his face at his accomplishment was unforgettable."
Bette says the program is rewarding for the dogs, too. "All the dogs in this program are well-trained and enjoy working with people," she says. "Ace loves interacting with people, as well as performing and sharing tricks he has learned." Sometimes, the dogs fulfill an important task of triggering memories for patients, which can lead to deeper thinking and social interaction. "The dogs can remind some patients of dogs they currently own or have owned in the past and gets them talking about their own experiences with animals." It seems that patients' favorite activity with these dogs is the simple act of compassionate touch: "Patients love petting the therapy dogs," says Bette. "The dogs return the affection and attention, which makes people feel good in a special way."
MEET BAILEY AND BELLA
Bailey, five years old, and her cousin Bella, two years old, are Labrador retrievers who, along with their owner/therapist Christine Murphy, impact dozens of people with each visit. "The dogs make patients relax and smile," Murphy explains. Rima Birutis, Marianjoy pediatric speech-language therapist, agrees, adding that Murphy is instrumental in guiding the emotional connection between patients and Bailey and Bella. "The dogs are so gentle and giving," says Birutis. "It’s amazing how many pediatric patients, reluctant to participate in therapy, will embrace the dogs within 15 minutes. It makes the children open to rehabilitation." Murphy says the reaction is almost instantaneous: "When I walk in with one of the dogs, heads turn and conversation starts. The patients get excited and start asking questions, forgetting what is bothering them or what obstacles they have to hurdle. Before they know it, they are doing the activity that seemed impossible before."
While the dogs are focused and dedicated at work, they have a playful side at home. "Bella is the more laid-back of the two, but she will do anything for food," says Murphy. "Her favorite activity is bringing me shoes from the closet." Younger Bailey also loves to retrieve, especially when playing catch. "If a ball of any type is involved, she will keep bringing it to you until your arm falls off," Murphy laughs. "We have been training her to catch a Frisbee, and she is getting quite good at it." Even outside of work, the dogs are extremely friendly. "Both dogs love people and enjoy each other’s company," says Murphy, smiling.
Ivy, a five-year-old Jack Russell terrier, is the smallest dog of the group, but her personality is huge. Patients love cuddling with this great lap dog, in spite of her high energy. Despite her zest for adventure, "she proved her intuition by being gentle with children," says her trainer/owner, Sue Pastor. "She knows not to jump on people who are physically disabled."
The benefit seems mutual, as Ivy loves the attention Marianjoy’s Pet Therapy Program provides her. "She enjoys the hugs just as much as the patients do," says Pastor. "She makes real connections with people."
When she’s not being doted on, Ivy enjoys racing and doing obstacle courses in the Jack Russell Terrier Club. She is also a big fan of playing Frisbee and catch. In fact, that aptitude has led to some special encounters. By request, Ivy visited a female pediatric patient who had made great headway with the pup. Despite the girl’s intense physical challenges, she, Ivy, and another patient all made strides in therapy by playing catch together. "It’s so rewarding to see patients make progress over time, and to know the dogs are a part of that story," says Pastor.