Community dogs provide therapy for people in need

Photo by Morgan Ellis
Freshman exercise science and Pre PT Karen Zamora and freshman exercise science and Pre PT major Megan Rooks play with Cayenne, a therapy dog for Eskenazi Health’s Therapy Dog program on Nov. 17. Photo by Morgan Ellis

Students on the University of Indianapolis campus were invited to gather and meet dogs from Eskenazi Health’s Therapy Dog program on Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. in the Engagement Center. The therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas and to people with learning difficulties.

Physical Therapist Penny Handshaw began the therapy dogs program in 2007 by bringing a dog named Bonnie into the hospital to visit with people as a part of Wishard Health Services. A gift from St. Margaret’s Hospital Guild, Bonnie served in Eskenazi Hospital with Handshaw, which began the therapy dog program in the hospital’s therapy department.

Now, Animal Assistant Therapy Coordinator of the Pet Therapy Program Shelly Fisher organizes visits and meetings with the therapy dogs on Eskenazi’s campus. Sandy Blanton, who is licensed by Therapy Dogs International, works as a volunteer through Eskenazi by bringing her Shih Tzu-Yorkshire Terrier mix, Luna, to visit patients and visitors. Tester and Observer of Alliance of Therapy Dogs Stacey Clevenger volunteers for the Pet Therapy Program with her pitbull mix, Keyenne.

Dogs that are part of the program at Eskenazi are available to anyone who wishes to visit with them and not limited to just the Eskenazi campus.

“We help the staff as much as we help the patients and visitors. The staff looks forward to seeing the dogs, and their [staff members’] jobs are stressful. They have stuff going on,” Fisher said. “It’s really great for them to see the dogs. So they’re [the dogs are] really available for anyone that would like to see the dogs.”

According to Fisher, people seeking therapy from the dogs affiliated with Eskenazi can contact her to set up meetings at Eskenazi or arrange visits to homes, organizations or even college campuses. The volunteers who work with the dogs can take them wherever they are requested.

“These dogs aren’t just Eskenazi therapy dogs. I love them because they are on the team here at Eskenazi, but they are therapy dogs, which means they can go to different hospitals, libraries, nursing homes, to schools if that’s what they [people] want,” Fisher said. “That’s the beauty of it. The dogs do all the therapy for us. You always find yourself smiling. That’s the thing, they all make you smile.”

Luna has been a therapy dog since age two and began volunteering through Eskenazi a few months after trying other organizations for a little over four-and-a-half years, according to Blanton.

“My dad had fallen and broke his hip. He was in rehab. And he loved our dog [Luna]. I’d go visit him, and he’d always say, ‘Why didn’t you bring the dog? You need to bring the dog. Ask if you can bring Luna,’” Blanton said. “So I took Luna in to visit him. And every time I would go, other people would tell me to bring her [Luna] into their room. I thought that was just so cool. I had quit my job about six months before that…. And everything just kind of fell into place. I kept going to the rehab center [her father was in], and a woman said to me, ‘We need to get your dog licensed, because she is perfect for this.’ And so she gave me the information and so I did.”

Kayenne has been a therapy dog for about five years and is used to test other dogs by being dog-friendly and calm in frantic situations. Clevenger volunteers because she finds comfort in the work she does, allowing Keyenne to visit people in need.

“The whole point is to bring comfort and happiness to other people,” Clevenger said. “He is dog-friendly and has a very high tolerance.”

A meeting with a therapy dog can be set up through Eskenazi Health. Fisher can be contacted at (317) 880-8565 or michelle.fisher@eskenazihealth.edu.