Just What the Doctor Ordered

Four-legged visitors offer their own kind of medicine

They may not be doctors, but they make rounds nonetheless. Ryder, a golden retriever, and Chloe, a cockapoo, are among nine pet therapy dogs who regularly visit patients at Beverly and Addison Gilbert hospitals, bringing smiles and delight to patients and staff alike.

“The patients we have that have been here for multiple days, or weeks even, it just brightens their day,” said Michelle Dearborn, MBA, BSN, RN, a nurse manager at Beverly Hospital. “It makes their outlook better. It gives them something to look forward to.”

During a recent visit by the therapy dogs, Beverly patient Lois White and her visiting family let out a collective “aww” when Ryder climbed into Lois’s hospital bed for a cuddle. And Marjorie Reed was charmed by a snuggle from Chloe, a little white fur ball who leaped right into her bed. “I love you,” she said, petting Chloe and smiling broadly. 

Chloe’s owner, Fred Gronberg, says he’s used to playing second fiddle to his dog. When he comes onto a patient floor, he’ll usually hear “Hello, Chloe! And… man with Chloe.” Fred works part-time in the Department of Nursing Education at Beverly, but when he brings Chloe for her rounds, he’s strictly off the clock.

A very real effect

All the dogs have to be certified before working with patients. They go through testing, which includes navigating around wheelchairs, not reacting when food is placed in front of them and not getting startled or barking. Ryder is certified, but it took a while. “Ryder flunked the first time,” his handler, Carol Brooks Ball, admitted. “We own it. He put the leash in his mouth.” 

Studies show interacting with animals has a very real effect on patients. Just spending a short time with a dog can lower a patient’s heart rate and blood pressure. It can also reduce stress and anxiety. And patients’ moods drastically improve. 

Gracie, a beagle mix, is particularly helpful with patients who are stressed or scared, according to her owner, Mary Ann Kiely from Rockport. “She understands the energy in the room,” she said. “And if she needs to be calm, she’s very, very calm.”

Gracie often works with patients in Addison Gilbert’s Senior Adult Unit, which offers specialized care for seniors with concurrent physical and behavioral health challenges. “If we visit a patient who’s agitated, you can see them calming down when they see the dog,” Mary Ann said. “They’ll reflect on times they’ve had dogs and they’ll reminisce. And that will bring them some joy.”

“I believe there’s truly an energy exchange that goes on,” said Carol, Ryder’s owner. “I have seen Ryder be with a patient and take on their anxiety, their fear, their anger, their anguish, whatever they’re feeling. Sometimes, when Ryder is with people, there aren’t words. The talking ceases and the patient is sort of lost in stroking his ears, and he’s absorbing whatever they’re feeling.”