Every Wednesday afternoon, retired nurse Sophia Selgrath loads up her five-year-old goldendoodle, Shane, and makes the 30-minute trip to the St. Luke's Monroe Campus in Bartonsville, Pa. Once there, the two start at the top of the building and work their way down, stopping in to see lab and pharmacy workers, visiting the nurse's stations on each floor, soothing visitors who are anxiously waiting to undergo a CAT scan, and popping into patient rooms to deliver "doggie hugs" to everyone and anyone who is open to them.
Shane is one of nearly 30 therapy dogs within the St. Luke’s University Health Network, and the first for the Monroe Campus. They range in age, size and breed but they share one commonality: They love people.
Shane, for example, gets so excited at the prospect of spending a few hours with old and new friends at the hospital that Selgrath says she has to calm him down on the car trip over. "He just loves it,” she said. “When we get there, he can't wait to see people. I’ve had nurses run down the hall to him when they see him coming. Some nurses even tell me that they switch their schedule to work on Wednesdays so that they can see Shane. By the time we are ready to leave a few hours later, he’s exhausted, but happy.”
Pet therapy volunteers throughout the St. Luke’s provide “a significant amount of joy to our patients, staff and visitors,” according to Daiana Marra, the volunteer engagement specialist for St. Luke’s Anderson and Monroe campuses. In that role, she onboards all volunteers and ensures that they have proper training before assigning them to various departments within the hospitals. The former radiologic technician began her new role in January and met Shane and his handler/owner Selgrath a few months later. “He is so cute,” she said. “He brings a smile to everyone who encounters him and just changes everything when he walks into a room. The patients, the staff – everyone just loves him. He brings so much joy.”
Marra said volunteer pet therapy dogs “are such a gift to our organization. Staff very much appreciate their weekly visits.” The therapy dogs are typically directed to patient rooms or hospital departments where their presence would be appreciated. “Sometimes you have patients who miss their own pets at home and even a little interaction with Shane makes a big difference for them,” she said. “They see him and their whole demeanor changes.”
The benefits of therapy dogs are many, according to the Alliance for Therapy Dogs (ATD), which provides testing, certification, registration, support and insurance for members who volunteer with their dogs in animal-assisted activities. Even the briefest interaction can bring comfort to those suffering from physical or emotional distress, distract them from anxiety over health issues, alleviate boredom and lower blood pressure.
Shane's owner Selgrath worked through ATD to help train, test and certify him. To be accepted into the program, dogs must be at least one year old. Owners must submit a background check and the ATD membership application, which includes a health check from the dog’s veterinarian. Rules and regulations must be accepted and then the owner and the pet undergo the ADT certification test, which includes a handling assessment and three observed interactions at a health care facility.
Prior to that extensive process, Shane had to earn a Good Citizenship Award, which indicated his readiness and adaptability for becoming a therapy dog. "They have to show that they are good around all kinds of people and medical equipment, that they can walk alongside people and that they can handle patient interaction," Selgrath said. "Prior to Shane becoming a therapy dog at St. Luke’s, Shane and I visited a nursing home in Stroudsburg to get him acclimated and he did very well. He just seemed to instinctively know how to navigate a walker, for example, or how to approach people."
Now, Selgrath said, Shane proudly wears a St. Luke’s Volunteer ID tag when he visits, while Selgrath hands out his personal business cards that were provided by the St. Luke’s staff. “Everyone loves those cards,” Selgrath said.
A lifelong lover of dogs, Selgrath said she’s had a dog in her life since the tender age of six. “We’ve had mixed breeds, Dobermans, Golden Retrievers, a Rhodesian Ridgeback and a pair of boxers that my husband, a retired Pennsylvania State Police Lieutenant, loved,” she said. “They were also a great comfort to me when my husband suddenly passed.”
Now Shane is the canine light in her life, and provided the impetus to continue her service in the health care industry in a volunteer capacity. “I may have retired five years ago, but my RN license is still active, and pet therapy seemed like the next logical thing,” said Selgrath, who sees this work as another way of helping people heal.
Marra said that St. Luke’s is always looking for more pet therapists, and that dog owners can work through one of the several organizations within the community that certify dogs for this type of volunteer duty. After the dog is certified, Marra encourages anyone who is interested to complete the online volunteer application package at www.sluhn.org/volunteerNOW or to call 484-526-4600.