RMH volunteer Dazzle proudly wears her blue volunteer vest and hospital
ID badge whenever she visits patients in the Inpatient Behavioral Health
unit. All of the therapy dogs volunteering at RMH wear their own vests
and ID badges.
Dazzle, a 3-year-old Shetland sheepdog, or “Sheltie,” was destined to be a show dog until she grew a tad too tall to make the cut. But on the Behavioral Health
Unit at RMH—where she gracefully prances and does tricks—she’s always a star.
Dazzle is one of seven registered canine volunteers who make weekly visits to patients in the RMH Inpatient Behavioral Health unit. The dogs are participants in the animal-assisted therapy program implemented last July. As bona fide hospital volunteers, the dogs come in with their owner-handlers, proudly sporting their official blue volunteer bandanas and hospital ID badges.
Dazzle’s owner, Candy Wilson Bush—who has three other Shelties that also volunteer—has been involved with pet therapy for 15 years. She and her husband, Jeff, moved to Harrisonburg last summer from Arizona, and Wilson Bush was able to jump right into the new program.
“Pet therapy is such a cool thing because the dogs make people smile,” says Wilson Bush, a private piano teacher. “You can take a dog into any situation, whether a person is sick or stressed or worried, and for a split second they just forget about their problems. With dog shows, there’s only one winner. But with this, everyone wins.”
“Non-responsive, reclusive patients have been observed coming out of
their rooms to engage with the dogs, smiling and talking in ways not
previously observed by the staff.”
—Andree Gitchell, Director,
RMH Behavioral Health
Man’s Best Friend
Pet therapy dogs have become an integral part of the treatment process on the RMH Inpatient Behavioral Health Unit
, assisting patients and the healthcare team in a variety of ways. The dogs have an uncanny ability to comfort and relax patients in distress. Their calming influence provides emotional support and encourages dialogue between patients and between patients and staff.
“Animal assisted therapy has been extremely well-received by our patients, as well as our staff, and already we’re seeing the benefits of this complementary approach to patient care,” says Andree Gitchell, director of RMH Behavioral Health. “Non-responsive, reclusive patients have been observed coming out of their rooms to engage with the dogs, smiling and talking in ways not previously observed by the staff.”
A patient recently hospitalized for severe depression refused to come out of her room for group activities. When recreational therapist Diane McCurdy, RN, announced that Keegan, a 2-year-old golden retriever, would be stopping by, the patient eagerly invited the dog to her room. McCurdy noted that the patient’s mood and facial expression immediately changed when Keegan entered her room.
Keegan and his owner, Pam Mason, visit in a patient’s room. Mason has been involved with pet therapy programs for 20 years.
“It made me feel really good to see the dog because I love animals,” the patient remarked.
“Dogs give unconditional love, and patients react to that,” McCurdy adds. “With behavioral health patients, you’re dealing with emotional and mental issues—and many human beings tend to back away from that. But when these patients are with the animals, they’re not being judged. The dogs are friendly and simply give them love.”
Keegan is the fourth therapy dog for owner Pam Mason of Broadway. During the 20 years she’s been involved with pet therapy, Mason has taken her dogs into nursing homes in the area, and she was excited when RMH started the animal-assisted therapy program.
“Doing this combines my love of dogs with my love of service,” says Mason, a teacher with Harrisonburg City Schools. “It’s a great way for me to do both. I feel for people who may have left behind their animals while they’re in the hospital or a nursing home. When patients see the dogs, they get smiles on their faces. It’s exciting to see people able to be peaceful and have an animal there that they can touch.”
Research has shown that petting and talking to animals provides many positive physical and emotional benefits for patients who are hospitalized or in long-term care situations—such as nursing homes or hospice care. Petting or talking to animals often results in lower blood pressure and heart rate, and may reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Burnese mountain dogs Eldor, left, and his sister, Ella, are frequent visitors to the hospital with their owners-handlers Dan Lynn and Rosemary Mitchell. All of the therapy dogs that volunteer at RMH are as popular with hospital staff as they are with the patients.
“Our goal at RMH is to provide evidence-based care, and the research shows time and again that animal-assisted therapy can ease the symptoms of mental illness,” says Tena Bibb, RN, nurse manager of the RMH Inpatient Behavioral Health unit. “We’ve also had patients and their families mention numerous times in follow-up surveys how much they enjoyed the therapy dogs’ visits, so it’s a boost to patient satisfaction.”
Patients aren’t the only ones at RMH who love the therapy dogs. Bibb, Gitchell and McCurdy light up as they share stories about the different dogs who visit the unit each week. Just about everyone on their staff looks forward to the dogs’ visits, Bibb says, and research shows that animal-assisted therapy programs can reduce employee stress and lift morale.
Bringing Pet Therapy to RMH
Dazzle prepares to visit a patient, accompanied by her owner-handler Candy Wilson Bush and RMH behavioral health employee Diane McCurdy.
For Chris Delaughter, director of RMH Volunteer Services, the implementation of the animal-assisted therapy program is a dream come true. She is excited about the new volunteer opportunities the program presents and its potential to have a positive impact on patients and staff.
“Volunteering at RMH means making a meaningful difference in the lives of others,” Delaughter says. “Being able to expand the volunteer program to include these beautiful dogs and their caring owners is exciting for everyone involved. We plan to continue welcoming new certified pet therapy volunteer handlers and dogs into the Volunteer Services program.”
The owners and their dogs go through the same training and orientation process as other RMH volunteers, and certification or registration through national therapy dog programs is required. RMH Volunteer Services accepts registration through Therapy Dogs International, Therapy Dogs Inc., and Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society). Wilson Bush is a tester and observer for Therapy Dogs Inc. and can evaluate new teams that may want to join.
While each organization has its own specific guidelines, they generally require dogs to be properly groomed and immunized, to have good manners and to be obedient. RMH maintains documentation of each dog’s certification and immunizations, requiring owners to keep records current.
RMH also conducts additional training and orientation in the Behavioral Health unit through various role-playing scenarios to make sure the dogs will tolerate patients who may respond in unpredictable ways. A challenge for Keegan was learning to refrain from kissing the patients he’s visiting.
“Therapy dogs aren’t supposed to lick, so I had to teach him not to kiss,” says Mason, laughing. “But he’s a golden retriever—they’re affectionate and love to lick. I had to teach him that’s a no-no.”
As the program becomes more established, Delaughter hopes to branch out into other areas of the hospital.
“This program is still new, but the volunteer dogs and owners are being kept busy,” Delaughter says. “Infection control is a big piece to address in other areas of the hospital before we can grow this program, but it’s definitely seen as a positive addition to RMH’s services.”
Calling All Dogs (and Their Owners)
For dog lovers with a heart for service, Wilson Bush recommends socializing the animals from a young age. Enroll them in obedience classes and other activities, she says, and take them into different environments—such as the park, a university campus or a baseball game. That will help them adapt to new people, different experiences and unusual smells.
“Do anything to get the dog out and socialized,” Wilson Bush says. “A dog in the house environment could be a nice dog, but there are a lot of things that can throw that off in the real world. So if they’re exposed to lots of different things, that will better prepare them for a hospital environment.”
While training and socialization are important, owners who want to become involved in animal-assisted therapy need to honestly assess whether their dogs have the right temperament. The ideal candidate would be tolerant, easy-going, not easily agitated or excitable, and friendly. The dog should have no history of aggressive behavior.
“You can’t train for disposition—the dog either has it or doesn’t have it,” says Dan Lynn, who volunteers with his wife, Rosemary Mitchell, and their Bernese mountain dogs Eldor and Ella. “These dogs have to have a quiet, calm and friendly disposition that’s conducive to therapy work. Most Bernese mountain dogs have a sweet, gentle disposition. They’re like giant teddy bears.”
Ella and Eldor, both registered with the American Kennel Club, recently were honored with the title, TDI-A, in recognition of their 50 therapy dog visits over recent months.
While patients and staff receive much joy from the dogs’ visits, each of RMH’s volunteer owner-handlers finds joy in the experience, too.
“These dogs are a little respite in the patients’ day, and it’s fun to watch that and to see how the patients interact with them,” Mitchell says. “It’s a good feeling to see how much the dogs mean to the patients.”
Adds Mason: “If people could just see these dogs at work—if they could just sit back and watch—they would be amazed. It’s one thing to read the research and know the positive effects, but to actually see a dog do this—it’s heart-warming. These dogs know who needs them.”
Learn more about volunteer opportunities at RMH, including the Pet Therapy volunteer service
, contact RMH Volunteer Services at 540-689-6400.