Volunteers bring dogs to hospital rooms, delighting patients, staff, visitors

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INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A pet therapy program at an Indianapolis hospital is recognizing a milestone anniversary and welcomed 24-Hour News 8 cameras to follow therapy dogs into patient rooms for the first time. 

Volunteers first began bringing pets to comfort patients at Community Hospital East in 1988. They haven’t missed a week throughout the program’s 30-year run, organizers said, and gradually expanded from Hook Rehabilitation Center to every floor of the hospital.

“It’s for the person here who’s in a place they don’t want to be in,” explained Karen May, a rehabilitation nurse who was instrumental in the launch and growth of the pet therapy program. “[People who] had something happen to them they didn’t ask for. These dogs don’t judge. We’re all the same to them. We’re just the people that pet them and talk to them. They think they’re getting a treat.” 

Delighted patients – often surprised by their four-legged visitors – have made it clear they’re the ones getting the treat. 

“It brings joy,” said Raymond Lucford, smiling broadly in his hospital bed despite the tubes in his arms and his extended stay in the dialysis wing. 

He initially expected to be discharged Thursday but was thrilled about the change in plans when he realized extra time in the hospital meant he would be there for the pet therapy program’s weekly visit. 

“Makes it well worth it,” Lucford told 24-Hour News 8, petting a therapy dog that brought back memories of a beloved pup he played with as a child. 

The dogs in the program are required to undergo obedience training and must react calmly in the presence of wheelchairs, crutches and other medical equipment. They are trained to provide affection and comfort to strangers in pain, distress and denial. 

Volunteers only approach patients who request the pet visits, program leaders said. They do not enter hospital rooms or treatment areas if patients are allergic, resting, in pain or uninterested in spending time with the dogs for any reason. 

“It’s a nice diversion,” said Mary Ann Olvey, a director at the Indianapolis Obedience Training Club and another driving force behind the pet therapy program’s success. 

“Caregivers have come to enjoy the pet visits as much as patients,” she added, saying nurses “almost fight to be on the schedule for Thursday night” in order to see the dogs. 

The program provides patients with more than fleeting comfort, according to May. 

“It makes a difference in recovery,” she said. “I had a young man with a brain injury, [a] severe injury, who was blinded because of it. His injury was so severe he did not know he was blind. He had no memory but he knew the dogs would come. He would say, ‘It’s time for the dogs, isn’t it? Are the dogs late?'”

May said she often witnessed patients with brain injuries – some suffering from hallucinations – reacting positively to pet therapy visits. 

“These people weren’t aware of what was going on or where they were,” she explained. “But the dogs meant so much to them.” 

Program leaders said they have no immediate plans to train cats or other therapy animals for hospital visits. 

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