Mercy Fort Smith Volunteers Begin Therapy Dog Program

August 25, 2021

Dog cart Baxter the therapy dog visits co-workers, patients and families at Mercy Fort Smith every Wednesday.

Robert Mercer may be the most popular man at Mercy Fort Smith, at least on Wednesdays.

That’s when Mercer, a Mercy volunteer, is accompanied by Baxter, a 10-month-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who is new on the job as a therapy dog at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith. The mild-mannered pup spends two hours each week visiting Mercy co-workers, patients and families.

Mercer is a retired police officer whose wife, Cathy, is a nurse practitioner at Mercy Fort Smith. She, along with Dr. Pamela Gaborni, discussed having a therapy dog come into hospice and palliative care departments at Mercy Fort Smith for a number of years. Baxter has visited those departments along with others such as infusion and ultrasound over the past few weeks.

At the same time, Volunteer Manager Jenni Powell had hoped to begin a dog therapy program as well.

“Everything just kind of came together this summer,” Robert Mercer said. “We hope to get a whole slew of volunteers, but he’s the start, and I think he’s a good start.”

Baxter, so far, is the only member of Mercy Fort Smith’s Therapy Dog program, but Mercer and Powell hope that will change. The program is open to any dog whose owner is willing to become a Mercy volunteer and accompany the dog on visits in the hospital.

Robert Mercer and Baxter Robert Mercer and therapy dog Baxter began visiting co-workers, patients and families at Mercy Fort Smith in August.


Mercer said calm, controllable dogs are a good fit to serve as therapy dogs. Mercer would assist in getting the dog trained and certified as a therapy dog, while Powell would work with the dog’s caretaker on the volunteer side. The Alliance of National Therapy Dogs vouches for the dog following the certification process.

“The dog and handlers are one team,” Mercer said. “It’s always a human-dog team. In a sense, he’s not a therapy dog, and I’m not a therapy dog handler. Baxter and I are a therapy dog-handler team.”

A dog and its handler would both be signed up as volunteers, Powell said.

“The dog would be signed up just like a human volunteer, but they of course would have different checkpoints, such as rabies shots,” she said.

“We’re not looking for volunteers with perfect show dogs or perfect obedience,” Mercer added. Dogs should be receptive to strangers and not prone to nipping or barking, he said, and they should be non-reactive to other dogs.

Baxter therapy1 Mercy Fort Smith Chaplain Megan Mayeux visits with Baxter the therapy dog and his handler, Mercy volunteer Robert Mercer.

The goals of the dog therapy program include:

  • Improve patients’ quality of stay.
  • Improve mood and emotional well-being.
  • Increase interactions and dialogue.
  • Provide comfort and joy.
  • Reduce anxiety and loneliness.
  • Increase overall patient satisfaction.
  • Provide stress relief and a more humanized work environment for hospital staff, visitors and families.

Baxter helps brighten the days of Mercy co-workers, who have enjoyed seeing him during his visits to the hospital, Powell said.

“It really is a huge deal to them, to be honest,” she said. “We bring Baxter by and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!”

Baxter remains leashed at all times during his visits, although he rides in his own custom cart, which keeps him from getting too tired and keeps him at optimum petting level for visitors. He’s also bathed before each visit.

Mercer would like to expand his therapy dog days, perhaps going from one day a week to two. National service dog organizations recommend just two hours a day for therapy dogs, he said. Mercer sees Baxter as helping to humanize what can be a sterile environment inside the hospital.

“I think he brings a little of the outside world in, and I think that’s nice,” he said. “Everybody else is disease-focused, from the doctors to the nurses to the families. Baxter could care less. He just wants to lick your face. It’s kind of nice to see that.”

Anyone interested in Mercy’s dog therapy program can email Jenni Powell at [email protected], or click here to learn more about volunteering at Mercy.