Pet therapy eases stress for staff

Employees take time with canines to breathe, reconnect
April 26, 2016

There’s something about Ethel.

At 9.5 years old, the latte-colored Standard Poodle is the essence of calm. She has an innate instinct, an intuitive power, it seems, to reach out to people when they need a little extra care.

Ethel, who lives with a black-colored Standard Poodle named Fred, is one of four dogs that recently participated in a Therapaws event held for the staff at Memorial Hospital.

The event is part of the Amazing Challenge offered by UCHealth’s Employee Wellness team. The Amazing Challenge, based on the Amazing Race television show, is a six-week campaign encouraging six areas of wellness:  nutrition, physical activity, financial wellness, stress management, sleep, and happiness, said Devon Ambler,employee wellbeing coordinator.

During the event, staff members were invited to take a short break from their jobs for respite with the therapy dogs that often are called upon to help patients relax while in the hospital.

The team included Shirley Abbot and Zephie; Norm Churchill and Ethel; Sharon Meazell and Lacey;  Sandy Miller and Lani; and Ann Ringler and Karamea. The volunteers provide pet therapy at Memorial Hospital Central and Memorial Hospital North.

Memorial Hospital recently offered pet therapy for staff. Pictured left to right are: Shirley Abbot and Zephie; Norm Churchill and Ethel; Sharon Meazell and Lacey; Sandy Miller and Lani; and Ann Ringler and Karamea.

Churchill’s dog Ethel has been certified as a pet therapy dog for about six months. She comes to the hospital at the request of Bonnie Nixon, Memorial’s volunteer coordinator, when a patient can benefit from the interaction. Ethel’s demeanor with patients, visitors and staff is serene and harmonious.

“She will meet dogs and gravitate to humans. I question her intelligence on that,’’ Churchill said with a chuckle. “She is just a kind animal. I don’t think she has ever shown anger; she’s defended herself from time to time with a growl, but other than that, she just prefers calm. ‘’

Animal Assisted Therapy is part of a therapeutic plan for patients because the presence of a dog can improve a patient’s feelings of wellbeing. Research shows that touching a welcoming animal promotes relaxation and calmness through the release of endorphins and decline in blood-pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

therapy dog
Igor Leshchinskiy, a vascular technologist in Memorial’s Cardiology Department, spends a few minutes with Ann Ringler and Karamea during a recent pet therapy event at Memorial Hospital.

Churchill said Ethel senses when a person is in distress. Recently, he took her to a dog park where Ethel encountered two women, both of whom were crying. It turns out that one of the women had to put her dog down the night before, and the women were grieving the loss.

“Ethel walked between the two ladies and just started to push up against them,’’ Churchill said. “She can sense when a person is stressed.’’

Igor Leshchinskiy, a vascular technologist in Memorial’s Cardiology Department, stopped by to say hello to the dogs during the recent Therapaws event.

“You can’t go wrong with a room full of dogs. It’s better than coffee,’’ Leshchinskiy said.

The therapy dog event is one of several offered through the Amazing Challenge, which provides an online tracking portal to help engage participants to meet the weekly challenges. Some other events are chair massages, a happiness webinar, meditation groups, and free fitness and financial classes. Participants can win weekly prizes for logging their progress and an overall winner will be selected from each region based on self-reported tracking of the weekly challenges (get at least 7 hours of sleep, do a random act of kindness, etc.).

Churchill engaged in a random act of kindness a little more than eight years ago, when he adopted Ethel. Her previous owner, Churchill said, was “a little old lady’’ who was in a wheelchair.   Ethel was about a year old when the lady died, and Churchill adopted her. Churchill said he does not believe that Ethel has ever seen anger, and that’s why she is such a calm dog.

She also volunteers at “Paws to Read’’ at the East Library. She gets a massage once a month, and she is groomed every three weeks.

“She has a good life,’’ Churchill said.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.