These therapy dogs are bringing much-needed comfort to Chattanooga area hospitals

Local programs strive to return to pre-pandemic volunteer levels

Photography by Olivia Ross / Wayne Gratigny pets his therapy dog, Omar, during a visit to CHI Memorial Hospital.
Photography by Olivia Ross / Wayne Gratigny pets his therapy dog, Omar, during a visit to CHI Memorial Hospital.

Deena Swafford left her mother's CHI Memorial Hospital room one late July day to get some wash cloths -- and came back with a therapy dog named Omar.

Her mother, Mary Maddox, had been hospitalized most of the summer for cancer treatments -- and "just lit up" at the first sight of the Golden Retriever and his handler, Wayne Gratigny, who had been working on the floor that day.

Before Swafford went home for the day, she recalls her mom dealt her a task.

"She said, 'See what you can do to get our dog trained,'" Swafford says. "And before I left that day, I started looking up how to do that."

Multiple studies over the years have at least implied that visits from trained therapy dogs can lower anxiety and blood pressure in hospital patients. Jean Payne, CHI Memorial's longtime volunteer services director, says she's seen it up close.

"Wayne and Omar bring a lot of comfort," she says. "You can feel anxiety just escaping -- and not just for patients, but staff as well. It's just a few moments in a day, but it's so uplifting."

As for Omar, Gratigny smiles and says, "He's just in it for the petting."

Callie Vandemark, a certified child-life specialist at Children's Hospital at Erlanger, testifies to a similar experience. She makes rounds with therapy dogs and their handlers weekly, mostly on the pediatric acute-care floor and in pediatric intensive care. She recalls one instance that could have gone badly -- but didn't.

"We went to a room (with a dog) and the child was so excited," she recalls. "What we didn't know going in was that he was a dog-bite victim. He could have been terrified, but seeing a dog in his room helped him talk about his dog and what happened to him. ...

"This is definitely one of the ways we try to bring normalization to kids," she says. "Maybe they're missing their dog at home, and it brings them joy to see the door to their room open and see a dog. There are so many benefits."

Vandemark says the therapy-dog program at Children's includes a mix of Goldens, Goldendoodles and "mutts," many rescued from shelters -- and Ranger, a Great Dane.

"He's huge," says Vandemark, adding that Children's had about 20 dogs in its program before the global pandemic and is trying to get back to that level.

It's the same for CHI Memorial, where Payne says the therapy-dog program has a roster of five volunteers, compared to 17 "before we had to pause" for the pandemic. It's their goal to get back to having pets on the floor every day -- the way it used to be.

Payne adds that it's important to note that there's a process for having dogs that interact with patients. They must be a year old, immunized and go through special training.

"Training is intense," says Payne. "A dog has to be able to withstand noise like alarms, and not react. They have to be able to stay calm."

  photo  Photography courtesy of Erlanger / From left, Keri Parks, Anna Barnhurst, Julie Neal and Natalie Ling with Ranger the Great Dane.

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