April 25, 2008
Elizabeth McKechnie beams from her hospital bed at the site of Maggie, a 9-year-old yellow Labrador.
“I think she’s wonderful. What a lovely color,” McKechnie says as she pets the excited the pooch, who props on the edge of McKechnie’s bed to deliver a wet kiss.
McKechnie is a native New Englander living in Aspen’s assisted living center, Whitcomb Terrace, and was on a short stay at Aspen Valley Hospital recently.
“I think that everywhere people like to see animals,” says the 97-year-old McKechnie.
Maggie is part of the Pet Enrichment Therapy program at AVH, where eight dogs share the responsibility of twice-weekly visits to people in the patient care unit.
Rita Cohen, an animal lover and registered nurse, started the program in 2001 with just two dogs. Today there is a waiting list of people who want their pets to become therapy dogs; since each dog visits the hospital just once each month, there can be only eight dogs in the program, Cohen explains.
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Cohen selects dogs and handlers, and says the only requirement for volunteers is a well-behaved and friendly pet.
Dogs must be bathed before every visit, and most handlers say their dogs get excited at the site of their therapy leash and collar, Cohen says.
“After a couple of visits, the dogs know exactly what to do,” Cohen says. “The dogs are very sensitive to the patients.”
Studies have shown that simply petting or holding an animal can lower a person’s blood pressure, reduce stress, and can draw someone out of loneliness and depression, according to the Therapy Dogs International website
On a typical shift, volunteer Jill Sheeley, wearing her pet therapist shirt as identification, first checks with nurses to see which patients might be receptive to a therapy dog, and to make sure she doesn’t interrupt nurses or doctors at work.
Many AVH patients are tourists far from home, and a pet visit keeps them from being lonely, Sheeley says.
“It’s stressful being in the hospital,” Sheeley says. “Some of the people will literally get out of their bed and get down on the floor to be near the dog.”
Snowmass resident John Willman was on an overnight stay at AVH after a recent surgery. And though he admitted to being a little “out of it” with post-surgery meds, he brightened up at the site of Maggie.
“I’ve always had dogs,” says Willman, who recently lost two black Labs.
“She’s real mellow,” Willman says while petting Maggie’s ears.
The visit isn’t just about dogs, though. Sheeley says the animals often serve as a conversation piece for a human-to-human visit.
“All of these people have their dogs at home and they want to talk about them,” Sheeley says.
“When people see these dogs, whatever they’re going through, they able to turn their mind off their sickness,” agrees hospital clerk Allison Daily, adding that the dog visits are just as important for staff as for patients.
Eliot Brown, a pilot from Telluride who was in Aspen for a knee operation, bonded with Maggie right away, scratching just the right spot to send the dog’s leg shaking.
“She’s getting as much therapy as us,” Brown quipped.