Bob Newton and Alphie, Willie and Toby

September 22, 2022
A photo of Bob Newton and Alphie, Willie an Toby
Bob Newton with Alphie, Willie and Toby

Therapy dogs provide joyful distraction

“We’re getting ready to go to work tomorrow to see your friends at the hospital.”

That’s what Bob Newton tells Alphie, Willie and Toby, his sheepadoodles, as he gets the therapy dogs ready for the next day’s visit to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. He’s said it for over eight years and more than 300 visits.

Newton is a pet therapy volunteer at YVMC and a member of Heeling Friends, a local non-profit whose volunteer human and dog teams regularly visit patients and staff.

“In 2014, I was in the waiting area at the hospital and received a visit from one of the teams,” said Newton. “I asked a few questions and thought it might be something I could do. Having retired, I had the time to give something to the community in which I was living.”

The teams undergo training and temperament assessments to ensure things like alarms, wheelchairs, groups of people and the overall hospital environment don’t startle the dog, or the human. Newton and Alphie passed and soon began their visits. Willie and Toby have since joined the team.

“There’s something about this breed and these dogs, they sense things,” said Newton. “We rounded a corner once to visit a staff member. There happened to be someone in her office. Alphie walked immediately to the visitor and put his head on her knee. Come to find out, this person had experienced two traumatic events that week.”

Newton connects with the patient care team to find out which patient, or patient’s family members, would like a visit.

“We will visit anyone who would like a visit from the dogs,” he said. “One visit, we were asked to go into, say, room 73. I knocked on the door and introduced myself and Alphie. The patient, a young child, kept screaming, ‘I don’t want a visit!’ The mother said, ‘Well, I do.’ I proceeded to talk with the mother while she petted Alphie and wouldn’t you know it, the child started to calm down. The nurse opened the door to check something, but turned and left because the child was so calm.”

Another time, Newton recalled visiting the same patient on a number of hospital stays. He got to know the patient and the patient’s adult daughter, who one day sought Newton out for a visit to her mother.

“That was a fulfilling moment,” he said.

Registered nurse Hestia Chase is one of many staff members who enjoy seeing four furry paws walk down the hallway.

“The unit is immediately buzzing with excitement,” she said. “This is such a wonderful program that provides a joyful distraction from the stressful workday. More importantly for our patients, it creates a sense of normalcy or nostalgia for their own pet, however brief, during a vulnerable time.”

“Some patients want to talk for a while whereas with others, it’s more of a casual conversation. Sometimes a comment is made and we realize we have a mutual acquaintance or a mutual interest,” said Newton. “It’s the people here that keep us coming back. We’ve built friendships with the staff and probably do more hugging around here than anywhere.”

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About the author

Lindsey Reznicek is a communications specialist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She has spent the last ten years working in marketing and communications in health care, an industry she never considered but one to which she's contributed through her work in media relations, executive messaging and internal communications. She considers it an honor to interact with patients and write about their experiences; it’s what keeps her coming back to work each day.

A native of Nebraska, Lindsey received a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, with a focus on public relations, from the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University – she bleeds purple.

She could see a Broadway musical every week, is a huge animal lover, enjoys a good shopping trip, and likes spending time in the kitchen. Lindsey and her husband have two daughters and enjoy hiking in the summer and skiing all winter long.