TRINITY — Big smiles are contagious among Medical Center of Trinity patients and hospital staff alike every time therapy dogs visit the hospital.
The hospital partners with a local chapter of Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs Inc. The group has 23 members, led by dog trainer Jackie Dougall.
Recovering patients have private rooms and about every modern convenience imaginable at the 236-bed hospital. Yet many grow wistful at times, perhaps missing their pets back home.
To keep the doldrums at bay and spirits up, patients can visit with therapy dogs. Hospital staff members also love to fuss over their four-legged friends.
Seven dogs are available for MCT visits, and each wears a red bandanna that says “Please Pet Me.”
On a recent day, Dougall brought Raina, a German shepherd. Cynthia Gifford had Emma, a rescued, 3-year-old German shepherd. Mary Daly had a 3-year-old Shetland sheepdog, Aoife, a Celtic word for “brilliant.” Kaci, a 5-year-old Catahoula leopard, accompanied Maggie Mayers, a registered nurse at MCT.
Other dogs in the MCT program include Angel, Luna and Riley.
“Oh, she is so beautiful,” patient Diane Bloom of Hudson marveled while petting Raina. Each animal is kept impeccably clean, but everyone gets hand sanitizers as a precaution when the pooches visit.
A therapy dog must undergo about a year’s worth of extensive training, Dougall said.
“You can’t make a therapy dog,” Dougall said. “They’re born. They’ve got to have that desire to be around people.”
During Kaci’s visit to Bloom’s room, Mayers asked the patient whether she had ever heard of the Catahoula leopard dog breed. Bloom hadn’t.
Kaci is deaf. “All her training was through hand signals. If I lose her attention, I tap her side to get it back,” Mayers said.
“That’s amazing,” Bloom responded.
“I love animals,” said Nicholas Venezia, a patient from New Port Richey, as he petted Emma.
“You don’t know how I miss my little guys,” Venezia said of his Jack Russell terrier and dachshund at home. “It’s been over a week since I’ve seen them.”
“They offer a lot of love,” Gifford said about pets. “And you know what? They know when somebody loves them. They know it instantly.”
“Oh, yeah,” Venezia heartily agreed.
The therapy dogs are well-behaved, Venezia said, unlike his Jack Russell terrier, he added with a laugh. “He’s all mouth.”
Therapy dogs must be at least 1 year old, display good behavior, exhibit a friendly and outgoing nature and have committed owners as volunteers, Dougall said.
Handlers and dogs come in all ages, shapes and sizes, and not every dog is cut out to do therapy work. They must be able to walk on a loose leash, become familiar with medical equipment, tolerate loud noises, pass up food on the floor and become accustomed to canes, wheelchairs and crutches.
“They have to be a passive dog,” Dougall said. “They can’t be a reactive dog to loud sounds.”
She’s been involved in therapy programs with canines for about 25 years. “I’m a dog trainer by trade and all of these were my students,” Dougall said about the four dogs at MCT.
The dogs and their handlers began visiting Medical Center of Trinity two days a week a few months ago. Dougall hopes to add weekend hours and perhaps a third weekday.
There is no charge for the visits. The nonprofit organization relies on volunteers. Contributions are welcome and tax deductible.
“There are many physical and emotional benefits of pet therapy,” Marlene Jaime, MCT patient experience coordinator, said in a news release. “For example, stress relief, alleviating depression, lowering blood pressure, giving a feeling of acceptance, hopefulness, comfort, and increasing overall mood.”
The dogs seem to thrive on the attention as well.
On the trip from their Hernando County home, Dougall says, Raina starts crying about 2 miles away from the hospital in anticipation. “She’s so excited.”
For more information go to www.golden-dogs.org or call Dougall at (727) 808-7524.