Hounds help the healing process in Vail | VailDaily.com

Hounds help the healing process in Vail

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Theo Stroomer/Vail DailyKatie Crofton, a nurse at the Vail Valley Medical Center, pets Gracie while owner and pet therapy volunteer Cathy Vito observes.

VAIL, Colorado ” There’s cooing and baby talk at the nurses station at the Vail Valley Medical Center, and we’re not even in the maternity ward.

The object of the staff’s affection is a one-and-a-half-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Gracie. As a therapy dog with Delta Society Pet Partners, an international organization that trains pets to visit hospital patients and staff, Gracie and her owner Cathy Vito are regulars in the hospital halls.

“She makes everyone smile who looks at her,” Vito said, looking at the mellow little dog seated contentedly at her feet.

And it’s true ” Gracie is a bit of a people magnet. Staff know her well, and stop in their tracks to visit with her, and patients’ faces light up with a smile when they pet the dog.

She makes her rounds to the nurses stations, wearing her green Pet Therapy vest, and stops to see various patients who have requested visits.

Getting ready to enter a room, Gracie knows it’s time to work. Her tail starts wagging and she eagerly perks up her ears.

Director of Patient Services Meredith O’Neill said the visits help patients relax, especially those who have been in the hospital for a while.

Sally Clair, a co-founder of the Vail Valley program, said she’s seen the dogs completely change the demeanor of patients. She recalls one little boy who was playing with her own six-year-old Labrador retriever, Kokomo.

“He was crawling around between Koko’s legs, and clapping on the sides of the dog’s belly, and just laughing and laughing,” Clair said. “The mom said it was the first positive reaction she’d seen from him in days.”

Other patients are moved to tears as they play with the dogs and start talking about their own pets at home.

The dogs can be just as therapeutic for the hospital staff.

“It can be the worst day, and as soon as the dogs arrive, everyone just takes a deep breath,” O’Neill said.

“A lot of us are dog lovers, and it’s a refreshing break during the day,” emergency room unit coordinator Ruthie Bopes said.

Any dog can qualify, Vito said ” as long as it has the right temperament and training. The Vail Valley program’s 31 dogs includes breeds from Chihuahuas to Newfoundlands.

Dogs must be trained to stay focused on their owners, be friendly toward strangers, not be scared of strange places and hospital equipment, and be disciplined enough to walk past distractions such as food, liquids or anything else that might be found in a hospital.

Both the pet handler and the pet must go through a training course and pass inspection by a certified trainer.

Clair said Kokomo seems to understand that visiting patients is her job.

“I put out her vest in the morning,” Clair said of the jackets all the therapy dogs wear on their visits. “And she knows it’s time to work, and she’s ready to go. Once she has it on, she’s a different dog.

Vito said she got Gracie with the intention of training her for the program, and the dog’s training began at six months. To socialize Gracie, Vito brings the dog with her everywhere she goes, including the dental office where she works.

“I saw the joy it brings to people,” Vito said of why she got involved. “Spiritually, it lifts them up.”

Pet Partners is an international organization that trains all kinds of animals ” from dogs and cats to chickens and horses ” to visit people in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes and schools.

The program was started in 1992 by a group of Seattle physicians who believed in the medical benefits of animal-patient interaction.

Vail Valley’s program currently has 31 registered dogs, who visit people at Vail Valley Medical Center and the Shaw Cancer Center. Recently, the local program has branched out to schools. Dogs visit and “read” with children in schools to encourage students who have learning difficulties.

For more information on the Delta Society Pet Partners, see http://www.deltasociety.org. For more information about the local chapter of the program, please contact co-founder Sally Clair at sally@airclair.org.

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or mwong@vaildaily.com.

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