New co-workers are always welcome at Mercy – especially the four-legged kind.
When Baxter the therapy dog first began visiting patients and co-workers at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith last summer, the positive response from both groups was immediate. Now, a trio of new canines has joined Mercy’s therapy dog program, with River, Honeybun and Lola Belle now part of the volunteer staff.
“We are thrilled to have additional therapy dog teams visiting us every week,” said Jenni Powell, manager of volunteer services at Mercy Fort Smith. “We began the therapy dog program last year and saw significant benefits. The dogs really brighten everyone’s day and help bring a sense of calm to those who need it most.”
Faith Walker is a full-time student at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and a full-time nanny. When she first heard about Mercy’s therapy dog program, she knew it would be a great opportunity for herself and her dog, Honeybun. The 8-year-old long-haired Chihuahua has been Walker’s emotional support animal for several years and is a familiar face at the university.
“She loves seeing everyone and making everyone happy,” Walker said. “She brings a lot of joy to me while also spreading a little love around the community. That’s something I’m really passionate about.”
Walker hopes to open her own mental-health practice someday. Until then, she enjoys bringing Honeybun to brighten the day of Mercy co-workers and patients. They generally visit hospice and the pharmacy team and stop by labor and delivery and the emergency room. The two try to visit the hospital at least once a week and often arrive during shift changes. If a co-worker has had a tough day, a visit from Honeybun can be therapeutic, Walker said. And for co-workers just beginning their shifts, seeing a therapy dog can bring a little comfort before the work ahead.
“Honeybun knows when we’re going to ‘work,’ and she gets really excited,” Walker said.
Visits from therapy dogs can help reduce patients’ anxiety. Other goals for the program include improving patients’ quality of stay, mood and emotional well-being while providing comfort and joy; increasing interactions and dialogue; increasing overall patient satisfaction; and providing stress relief for hospital staff, visitors and families.
Volunteer Kaley Moore, an assistant coach for the Southside High School girls basketball team, brings therapy dog River to the hospital regularly. River is a 2-year-old Great Pyrenees-Australian shepherd mix.
“He loves it; he’s awesome at it,” Moore said of River. “I definitely think dogs make everything better.”
Moore also teaches biology and a credit-recovery class and oversees virtual learning at Southside. A student once told her he would want to come to school every day and do his work if there was a dog in the classroom. Her interest in therapy dogs further took root after she learned more about Mercy’s program. She signed up soon afterward, and River began his therapy-dog training. The pair has been visiting the hospital on Sundays; Moore is hoping to expand the visits to a couple of days each week.
River has been most helpful when he and Moore are with patients and families when they receive difficult news.
“People will cry and just hug him,” Moore said. “It’s awesome to see the energy they get back. It’s really cool to see how instantly a dog can change things, whether it’s the mood or the energy in the room.”
Walker agreed, saying, “I get a lot of people who have heard really hard news. I will walk through the ER, and you can tell everyone has a sigh of relief just for a second, being able to bring just a little bit of the outside world in.”
Debbie and Larry Wright recently began bringing therapy dog Lola Belle for hospital visits. Their team received certification around Christmas, and they have been visiting the hospital about once a week since then, stopping by as many departments as possible.
Debbie Wright’s mother was a patient at Mercy when Debbie first met therapy dog Baxter. Like Baxter, Lola Belle is a cavalier King Charles spaniel. While visiting Baxter, Debbie thought, “I bet Lola Belle could do that.” The couple then got in touch with Mercy to begin the therapy dog certification process.
Lola Belle was intended to be Larry Wright’s companion, but once he and Debbie learned about Mercy’s program, they decided to share her with others. Lola Belle enjoys the visits as well.
“You can say, ‘Let’s go to the hospital and see people,’ and she’s all about it,” Larry Wright said. “She was my comfort dog, but she turned into a therapy dog.”
The Wrights have noticed that the staff benefits as much from the visits as patients do. Hospice nurses, for example, often have stressful days and appreciate the opportunity to visit Lola Belle when they can. Debbie Wright said even the physicians they’ve met have enjoyed seeing the pretty little spaniel.
“One day we were in labor and delivery, and one of the doctors came around and petted her and said, ‘I can feel my blood pressure falling. I’m so glad they implemented this program,” Debbie Wright said.
“The happier co-workers are, the happier they make the patients,” Powell added.
Baxter’s handler, volunteer Robert Mercer, said calm, controllable dogs are a good fit to serve as therapy dogs. Dogs should be receptive to strangers, not prone to nipping or barking and non-reactive to other dogs.
Mercer assists in getting the dog trained and certified as a therapy dog, while Powell works with the dog’s caretaker on the volunteer side. The Alliance of National Therapy Dogs vouches for the dog following the certification process. Because both dog and handler are one team, both are signed up as volunteers, Powell said. The therapy-dog certification process takes several months.
The therapy dog program is funded by Women With a Mission Giving Society through Mercy Health Foundation.