Pet Therapy: A Barking Success!

June Ramsey

Bonnie, the Shih Tzu; Spike, the Yorkie; and Fuzzy Rogers, the black Labrador Retriever, can’t wait to get to work at South Florida Baptist Hospital. The three are among the 12 Plant City area dogs that bring a little joy to patients, visitors and staff as part of the hospital’s popular pet therapy program.

“If you’re a patient at the hospital, chances are you’ll get a visit from at least one of our dogs. We’re here many days of the week, as well as evenings and weekends,” says Cassandra Banning, who coordinates the program under the direction of Eugena Gale, SFBH manager of volunteers. 

In addition to Bonnie, Spike and Fuzzy Rogers, there are two toy poodles, another black lab, a golden retriever, golden doodle, boxer, Australian shepherd, Cavalier King Charles, two greyhounds, and a Corgi who are part of the program.

“Patients light up when a dog comes into the room,” says Eugena. “It just makes them feel better.”

The pet therapy dogs have badges with their photos on it, just like all of the SFBH volunteers. There are also postcards with the dogs’ photos on them. The owners can give the postcards out during a visit or they can be purchased in the hospital gift shop.

“We always ask first before we enter a room, but almost everyone welcomes a visit,” says Cassandra.  “The hospital staff love it too.  I always joke that I am invisible, as my dog Bonnie gets all the attention. But that’s ok.  She’s the star and brings a smile to everyone in the room.”

Because she’s so little, Bonnie rides around in a stroller.  “I can wheel her right up to the bed and not have to pick her up. If a patient is in isolation, we can stand at the door and wave hello,” says Cassandra.

Barbie Frost has been part of the SFBH pet therapy program for almost 10 years, first with her former boxer Mack, and now with Zack, a one-year-old boxer who just completed his testing and observation process.

 “I was looking for a ministry separate from what I do at church, and the pet therapy program seemed like an answer to prayer,” says Barbie. “Dogs love us unconditionally no matter what. When we go to the hospital, we always have a great visit. Everyone always has a story to tell you about their dog.  It just really brightens someone’s day. I definitely get more out of it than we give.”

According to the Alliance of Therapy dogs, a visit from a pet therapy team can increase overall emotional well-being, decrease blood pressure and reduce stress levels. 

“A visit from one of our dogs gives people hope – it always brings their thoughts back to something positive,” says Cassandra. “Participating in the program has become a passion for me. It’s opened up a whole different world for me – a different way of seeing because of my dog.”

The dogs and owners typically stop first in the hospital lobby, then make rounds to patient rooms. They also visit waiting rooms for the Emergency Department, Same Day Surgery and the Intensive Care Unit. They may stop in the gift shop, too, and check in at the SFBH Outpatient Rehabilitation Center.

Dipaolo, a black lab, was especially fond of visiting the children in the Outpatient Rehabilitation Center.  Therapists often used petting the dog as a reward to encourage pediatric patients, says Dipaolo’s owner Beth Glynn.

“There was a child who just loved Dipaolo and Dipaolo loved him,” says Beth.  “We rearranged our schedule so we could be there at his outpatient therapy appointments. The two of them had a very special connection.”

But it’s not just children who benefit, Beth says.  “Older patients will tell me about a dog that they had in their youth and how much it meant to them. And pretty soon, they’re feeling better. Petting a dog calms everyone.”

Dipaolo is now retired – his arthritis was bothering him – but Fuzzy Rogers, another black lab, whom Beth also owns, has taken his spot. Beth jokes that Dipaolo said to Fuzzy Rogers, “It’s your turn, now be calm and remember to keep a secret.  I always told the kids who were petting Dipaolo – my dog can keep a secret, go ahead, you can tell him anything.” 

To become part of the SFBH pet therapy program, individuals must fill out a volunteer application and have a personal interview, first with the volunteer department, and then with Cassandra. In addition to coordinating the hospital program, Cassandra is a tester/observer with Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national nonprofit organization that provides testing, registration and insurance for members. All SFBH pet therapy dogs must be certified through the Alliance.

To receive certification, dogs and owners must meet certain guidelines, including undergoing observation and evaluation under different scenarios. “It’s important that the dog and owner work as a tight team. They must be bonded and respond well to each,” says Cassandra.  “It’s all about safety for everyone.”

For more information about joining the program, stop by the hospital lobby and request an application.