by Central Washington Senior times

It’s easy to forget about illness or hardship when there’s a happy dog around. At least that’s what Virginia Mason Memorial Hospital in Yakima has found after starting its Paws2Heart program last October. The volunteer program takes certified therapy dogs to hospital floors on Tuesdays at 11a.m. and Fridays at 1 p.m. to visit with patients. “The patients absolutely love seeing them,” said Beverly Olson, the hospital’s volunteer coordinator for Paws2Heart. “Having the dog in their room immediately brings a smile.” According to Olson, the program dedicates two volunteers per dog, to allow for adequate handling and sanitation during the visit.

The volunteers check in with the floor nurse for a list of potential patients to visit, before a volunteer explains the program and asks the patient if they’d like to visit with a dog before it enters the room. “It’s not very often a patient says no.” Olson said. “It’s a great way to help them forget about what’s going on.” Paws2Heart, a division of Love on a Leash, began visiting patients at Memorial’s Cottage in the Meadow hospice care facility and North Star Lodge in 2013.

“Since we’ve started, we’ve seen a great influence on elderly patients,” Olson said. “Many of them have had to leave a dog at home for an extended stay, so it really helps a lot.” It wasn’t until Olson began volunteering in August 2014 that the idea of bringing certified therapy animals to the hospital on a regular basis came to fruition. “It’s been so wonderful to get this program going and to see the reactions the patients have to the dogs,” she said. Paw2Heart is modeled after a similar program started by the Love on a Leash chapter in the Tri-Cities. Love on a Leash is a nationwide volunteer organization that provides pet owners with the tools and testing necessary to qualify their pet as a certified therapy anima. Since the program launched at Virginia Mason Memorial, Paws2Heart has registered six regular volunteers for nine certified dogs.

According to Olson, two other certified volunteers and their pets will be starting in the next few weeks. In order to become a certified therapy animal through Love on a Leash, a pet and its owner must be evaluated over the course of 10 supervised visits in a variety of locations in order to observe the animal’s interactions. Evaluations assess th animal’s ability to listen to commands and determine how reactive it is to a variety of situations, people and other dogs. Before a dog may join the Paws2Heart program with Memorial, it must have six months of experience as a certified therapy animal and pass the hospital’s animal therapy competency evaluation Olson brings her two dogs to the hospital weekly. Winnie, an 8-year old giant Sheltie, has been visiting patients since 2014, when she was 4 years old. Olson said the dogs that come to visit range from small to very large. “The majority of the dogs will climb right up into the hospital beds with the patient,” she said. “And we just love to hear the squeals of delight.”