When Jessica Smidt conducts interviews, she looks for certain must-have traits in her candidates: reliability, predictability, friendliness and, perhaps most importantly, a "happy tail." That may sound like a strange job requirement, but for the coordinator of Mayo Clinic's Caring Canine Therapy Dog Program, it's a telltale (ahem) sign that a potential recruit has the right stuff. "You can teach a dog to obey commands, but you can't teach personality," Smidt says. And personality is important when your job is providing comfort, encouragement and support.
At Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, 26 dogs — and their human handlers — have made the cut. Sharon Theimer and her two Australian Shepherds, Baxter and Elfie, are among the group of dedicated volunteers that make regular visits to inpatient and outpatient areas throughout Mayo Clinic. Theimer, who works in Mayo's Department of Public Affairs, says, "It's a joy seeing how patients, staff and visitors respond to the dogs." Usually it's with smiles and laughter, which can be tough to come by in the often stressful environment of a hospital. "A dog can change the whole mood of a place," she says.
While that's something dog-lovers have long recognized, there's now science to back them up. Research has shown that pet therapy has many benefits, including lowering blood pressure and stress, and improving depression and patient compliance. Edward Creagan, M.D., a Mayo Clinic oncologist, calls pets "a medication without side effects." And Mayo Clinic believes so strongly in this healing power, that providers can order a visit from a therapy dog, just as they would order physical therapy or other medical services
But pet therapy offers something medicine perhaps can't. Spending time with a dog "gives people a sense of normalcy," says Smidt, who visits patients with Alta, Mayo's first facility-based service dog. "Many of us consider our pets family," she says, and "when people are in the hospital, they miss their pets." That can be particularly true for some of Mayo's youngest patients, where visits from therapy dogs are an especially welcome distraction. Some of the kids even collect calling cards that Mayo creates for its Caring Canines. Each card includes a photo and a few fun facts. For example, Baxter's card reveals his favorite hobby (catching popcorn) and favorite musician (B.B. King). "The kids love them," Theimer says. (As do certain Loop reporters.)
Elfie and Alta, along with their canine colleagues Merc and Hasbro, recently appeared on the "Almanac" program, from Twin Cities Public Television. Reporter Mary Lahammer recently shadowed the dogs for a multi-part series on service and therapy dogs. The subject is a personal one for Lahammer, a Mayo Clinic patient. She has two service dogs of her own, which help her manage the effects of MS.
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