Therapy dogs provide smiles and comfort for patients and staff

When Natalie Kyro was in eighth grade, she started struggling with anxiety and depression. She was assigned to see Dr. Kate Regan, who is now the Chief of the Department of Psychiatry for MidMichigan Physicians Group, a subsidiary of MidMichigan Health.

Kyro grudgingly sat through her initial appointments, refusing to share anything about her life. She remembers being in waiting rooms, head in hands, dreading the moment that they called her name.

Then one day she walked into Dr. Regan’s office and a warm, furry sight greeted her. Enter Sonrisa, Dr. Regan’s Bernese mountain dog, who is also trained as a therapy dog and participates in the Cosmic Canine Cure program at MidMichigan Medical Center – Midland.

“The dogs have to have outstanding temperament, good obedience, and good citizenship,” says Wackerle.

“That dog saved my life,” says Kyro who will be attending Eastern Michigan University in the fall to study special education and social work. After seeing how Dr. Regan was able to help her, Kyro hopes to work with students with emotionally-based learning difficulties and mental health struggles. And given her experience with Sonrisa, she would absolutely use a therapy dog.

“Without Sonrisa, there is no way I would be here today getting ready to go to college,” says Kyro who says that Sonrisa became the bridge through which she could connect with Dr. Regan and her own recovery. “I owe my life to that dog.”

Part of what helped, is that Kyro grew up around dogs in her home. So, having Sonrisa at her medical appointments allowed her to access a little bit of familiarity in an otherwise daunting space.

Therapy dogs can offer familiarity in an otherwise daunting space.

While therapy dog volunteer teams usually visit with patients once a week through the Cosmic Canine Cure Program, as a mental health professional Dr. Regan brings Sonrisa in more often. Sonrisa’s name is now part of their team’s bulletin board out front and a stash of dog treats can be found throughout the floor.

“She brings a lot of smiles to the staff as well as the patients,” says Dr. Regan of the impact she has seen Sonrisa, whose name means ‘smile’ in Spanish, have. “She can identify who is in distress and give them a level of comfort that I can’t.”

In fact, Dr. Regan remembers Natalie running out of her office during the first visit. Next time, she brought Sonrisa along to the appointment. Without any prompting, the dog went up to Natalie and buried her head in the girl’s lap. The whole appointment passed with Natalie petting Sonrisa as she shared her journey with the doctor.

Grace Hedlund, daughter of Ariane Hedlund, pets one of the dogs while visiting family at the hospital.

“She just kind of intuitively knows when people need her,” said Dr. Regan of Sonrisa. The two of them just attended Natalie’s high school graduation celebrations this past week. “It’s beautiful.”

MidMichigan’s Cosmic Canine Cure Program started in 1992, when a group of volunteers who had met through their therapy dog training classes got in touch with the rehabilitation center at the hospital. John McPeak is the current chair of the Cosmic Canine Cure Program and has been involved since the very beginning.

“There are only three things that matter, the temperament of the dog, the handler and the commitment,” says McPeak who reiterates that families and staff expect to see the canine teams every week. “If you say you will be there, you have to be there.”

"They just kind of intuitively know when you need them."

Therapy Dogs International
started in 1976 in New Jersey. As of 2012, they had over 24,000 registered teams in all 50 states. Dogs go through a rigorous certification program where they have to pass tests showing they can perform a series of commands successfully. These include demonstrating the dog can withstand being approached by several people from all sides, staying under control even if the handler isn’t present, reacting to unusual situations, visiting with individuals in crutches or a wheelchair, and not consuming any treats or liquids the dogs come across during their scheduled work time.

MidMichigan Health employee Bev Wackerle and her dog Bailey, a black Labrador mix, are another one of the canine-handler teams that make up MidMichigan’s volunteer Cosmic Canine Cure Program.

John McPeak, current chair of the Cosmic Canine Cure program.

“The dogs have to have outstanding temperament, good obedience, and good citizenship,” says. At the time, Wackerle’s father was a resident at an assisted care facility. When she saw how her father and the other residents interacted with Bailey, she knew Bailey could do more.

Wackerle registered Bailey with Therapy Dogs International about three and a half years ago. When she learned that her own workplace, MidMichigan Medical Center - Midland, offered a therapy dog program, she couldn’t wait to get started.

“I frequently see people’s faces light up when they see Bailey,” says Wackerle, a director of physician services who has been with MidMichigan Health for 38 years. “It helps patients reminisce about their own pets and share stories from their past.”

MidMichigan’s Cosmic Canine Cure Program started in 1992.

Now Wackerle and Bailey come every Monday evening to visit with patients, and say hello to the staff members that eagerly await them. They make up one of over a dozen teams of canines and their handlers, and Wackerle says it truly feels like a community.

“What the handlers and dogs have in common is a passion to help others, to bring a small slice of joy into someone’s day,” says Wackerle.

In preparation for service work, Bailey has to be brushed, groomed and in uniform — a red bandana and a name tag — every week. Wackerle says that the dog can tell when it’s time for work.

Dogs of all breeds and sizes lined up during programming.

“She just trots right in here,” says Wackerle who sees Bailey recognize some of the dogs she has been with since her training class. “This is her community.”

Throughout the years, Wackerle has many memories of special moments shared with a patient or family member, but one story about a young gentleman really sticks out. The two visited his room, and Bailey started giving him hugs and kisses. Afterward, he said that they had been his very first visitors in the hospital.

Then there was a grieving family member who broke down in tears, finally finding catharsis, once meeting Bailey.

“She said, ‘I don’t even like dogs,’” said Wackerle who describes what it felt like to see this woman find joy and comfort in Bailey. “It’s an honor for me to share her with other people.”

Dogs help bring smiles to both the staff and patients on their visits.

In over 25 years with the program, John McPeak has witnessed many stories like this in action. One story that comes to mind for him happened when many years ago, a team visited a woman who hadn’t been responsive for weeks. As they placed the lady’s hand on the dog’s head she started to open her eyes. Later, the nurse told them it was her first reaction in over a month.

“We don’t always see it, but it’s there,” said McPeak of the impact of the program. “It’s so satisfying to see the change a dog can make.”

McPeak said that Therapy Dogs International and Pet Partners offer evaluations and classes in Mid-Michigan on a regular basis. He encourages anyone interested in volunteering with their dog to reach out to Diana Brookens, manager of volunteer services, MidMichigan Health. Brookens can be reached at diana.brookens@midmichigan.org.

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