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Pet therapy gives patients normalcy in hospital setting

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Four-year-old Abby forgot all about the horrible day she was having when Georgia walked into the hospital with a scratch on her nose. Abby’s attention was not on the five different pokes she endured when doctors tried to start her IV, and it was not on her illness. She was 100 percent focused on the 11-year-old yellow lab and her “boo-boo.”

“She went and got one of the doctor’s stethoscopes from him and started checking the dog,” Abby’s grandmother, Brenda Waters, said. “It had been a horrible day for her, and there she was: ‘I’m OK but the doggie has a boo-boo and needs an IV.'”

Georgia is a trained therapy dog. She and her owner are just one of the 22 teams of dogs and owners in the pet visitation program at Shands in Gainesville.

“When you see your grandchild get all excited and smile about a dog, and someone is taking the time to teach that dog how to be gentle, and they have such a spirit with these children,” Waters said. “When you see in the middle of the IVs and the medicines making them sick, and you see them smile and be happy — it’s overwhelming, and it’s a blessing. And what they do is a ministry for these children.”

Georgia’s owner Madine Raw was a registered nurse for 42 years. She said it is rewarding to see how happy patients get by the sight of something familiar.

“She loves kids and she’ll pick the people that are usually the sickest or they maybe have just received a life-limiting diagnosis,” she said. “Even though they may know the staff, they now know the dog when they come on repeat therapy.”

Shands Volunteer Services Director Constance Keeton said the pet visits bring a sense of normalcy to the hospital experience.

“It helps (patients) to get in touch with their outside-of-the-hospital self, and it also gives them something to talk about other than medicines and procedures and tests,” she said.

Although Georgia has been a trained pet therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International for two years, Keeton said not all pets that visit the hospital are trained for therapy.

“We call it pet visitation because in the therapy environment you have a goal that you’re trying to accomplish,” she said. “Our dogs, some of them are trained pet therapy dogs and certified and some are not, but they’re all good visitors.”

Registered nurse Betsy Potocik said the dogs are a good break for the staff as well.

“I think everyone enjoys the pet therapy,” she said. “It just brings a smile.”

Emily Miller edited this story online.

About Ethan Magoc

Ethan is a journalist at WUFT News. He's a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing emagoc@wuft.org or calling 352-294-1525.

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