Therapy dogs bring smiles to seniors

Nellie Smith, a patient at St. Thomas Highland Hospital, smiles while getting acquainted with Sookie, a therapy dog owned by Bonnie Stoner. UCBJ Photo/Jim Young Hannah Stoner and her therapy dog Annie work with patient Mary Smith at St. Thomas Highlands Hospital.

Therapy dogs bring smiles to seniors

By JIM YOUNG – Special to the UCBJ


SPARTA – A smile can be great medicine, according to folks at Saint Thomas Highlands Hospital in Sparta. And all it takes sometimes is a therapy dog to get that smile from a patient.

For the past year and a half, therapy dogs and volunteers have paid weekly visits to patients housed at Highlands Geriatric Behavioral Health. The professionals who work with the patients – up to 10 stay in the unit – say the visits help those in their care and can help guide their treatment as well.

Eve Hinson, a recreational therapist for Highlands hospital, said the visits provide a number of benefits. It keeps the patients active, improves their mobility and helps the staff observe them and their response to treatment and medication. The animals also help patients with social skills and act as mood enhancers as well.

April Hibdon, senior care program director, said the dogs can help spark memories for patients. Some remember the pets they had when they were younger.

“The dogs are vital to the program,” Hibdon said. “They give them love and the patients can love back. The patients love it.”

Most patients in the geriatric psych unit stay between 10-18 days. Diagnoses can include depression, dementia and other conditions faced by seniors. The patients can also sometimes be combative and feel isolated, and the visit from the dogs can often help with many of those problems.

Hinson said that the unit participates in three group activities each day, and the dogs come once a week. Usually just one dog visits at a time.

The therapy dog program has been in place here for about 18 months and was started by Highlands’ previous CEO who knew one of the therapy dog’s owners and liked the idea and decided to give the program a try. In addition to the hospital, the therapy dogs and volunteers also visit schools, libraries and cancer treatment centers. Other therapy dog programs help build reading skills by having children practice reading to the dogs in school and at the library, anti bullying programs and how to care for animals.

Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs. Service dogs perform a job, while therapy dogs mainly give and receive love. Therapy dogs are certified after several weeks of training. They must also have a canine good citizen certificate to show they have learned obedience and are able to be calm around patients with medical equipment like wheelchairs or walkers and canes. The therapy dogs are certified by Therapy Dogs International (TDI) and must undergo an evaluation test by a TDI certified evaluator. Membership in TDI provides each dog and volunteer with a $1 million liability policy.

While most of the dogs and their owners come from Cookeville, a few also live in other parts in the Upper Cumberland. One of the youngest animal handlers, Hannah Stegar, said she had seen therapy dogs at school. She quickly realized helping people that way was something she wanted to do. She brings her English Springer Spaniel therapy dog, Annie. MaryDell Sommers and her Australian Silken Terrier, Button, lead the group of volunteers. Button, now 12, started training as a therapy dog at 10 weeks old. Sommers said she and Button get their reward from touching people’s lives.

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