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Warming hearts in Sterling

Hospital’s program has 15 dogs to spend time with patients

STERLING – Hospitals are not usually a place you would expect to meet such an elegant, pretty girl, so even before she is officially on duty, Cally Lanae is working hard, meeting curious onlookers.

The Cavalier King Charles spaniel is one of 15 dogs in CGH Medical Center’s new dog therapy program, Love on a Leash. In it, trained dogs and their handlers spend time visiting with patients.

From the moment she enters the hospital, tiny Cally attracts attention. Hospital staff bend over to pet her soft brown-and-white fur. Nurses, technicians and other workers smile as she passes by.

Despite the excitement of so many faces, Cally stays calm. So does her owner, Wendy Johnson of Sterling, one of the owners of SBM Business Equipment Center.

On her first visit of the morning, Cally quietly enters Robin Jaggers’ room. Jaggers and her daughter, Evangeline Conway, light up when they see her.

“You’re so precious,” Jaggers says as she pets and plays with Cally. For a few moments, mom and daughter are focused on their furry visitor.

Jaggers, 54, of Rock Falls, recalls her chihuahua, Asta, that isn’t with her at the hospital. She hopes Asta someday can become part of CGH’s program.

“I love animals,” Jaggers said. “I fight for animals, abused animals, neglected, harmed. Especially my baby I have at home. I miss him, so it [the visit] was very important.”

Some visits are quiet, just a few moments with a patient. Such is the case with Steven Vandusen.

Johnson patiently holds Cally at Vandusen’s side. Vandusen, 47, of Rock Falls, gently pets her a couple of times. He doesn’t say much, but he smiles as Cally sits close.

From the moment Cally first sits on Richard Manon’s lap, he is nothing but smiles. His wife, Maggie, and daughter, Cari Engelbarts, are equally thrilled with the visit.

“His eyes twinkled and he became very happy,” Maggie said. “It was good for me to see him happy. I think we all enjoyed it.”

Cally is used to the spotlight. When she’s not busy meeting with patients, she is the star of SBM. She even participated in a special Fourth Fridays rodeo-themed event.

Johnson got Cally at 8 weeks old.

“When we saw her, she was instantly ours in our heart,” Johnson said of her beloved 8-year-old.

She and Cally share a love of fashion and style. Around Johnson’s neck was a chunky pearl necklace. Cally also sported a fashionable black pearl necklace.

When meeting with patients, Johnson tried to make them feel comfortable with her dog. She helps them open up and talk about their own dogs.

“Giving back to your community is part of what you do, and then when you’re in business, it’s an even bigger part of what you do,” she said. “We try to instill that into a lot of our staff. For me, coming here, I think it’s just ... it’s joyful.

“Even though you’re seeing people who are in a lot of pain and a lot of times not in the best frame of mind, for a few minutes, they are in a different frame of mind.”

Sheila Brune, CGH’s director of service excellence, said Love on a Leash is all about improving a patient’s experience.

“You will occasionally have a patient who says, ‘This is the only visitor I’ve had,’ and I guess to me, that’s all I need,” Brune said.

The program has many types of dogs, including Fletcher, a big, fluffy yellow lab owned by Jeff Kuchel.

“I’m fortunate enough to have a dog like Fletcher that I can share with people to make them feel better,” Kuchel said. “You go into a room, it’s almost like Santa Claus. A person could be there really sick and ill, with their family, and then you knock on the door and walk in.

“As soon as they see the dog, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’”

Kuchel and Fletcher visited with patients on Thanksgiving, and will return Christmas Day.

Kuchel has another yellow lab, Maggie, who has already passed temperament testing for the program and is waiting for her training and certification session.

“I really want this program to grow,” Kuchel said. “It’s just not only for patients, also for visitors and for doctors and nurses and staff. You go to the nurse’s station, nurse is having a bad day ... it’s not really just for patients 100 percent; [it’s for] everybody involved in the hospital.”

To participate

 Dog owners who want to participate in the program can go to to download an application.

All applicants will be phone-screened; those that qualify will get a temperament test. Those that pass advance to a mandatory 10-hour training and certification course, which costs $30. After a successful completion, handlers submit paperwork and a $5 fee to join CGH Auxiliary to become a CGH Medical Center volunteer.

Call Sheila Brune, 815-625-0400, ext. 4472, or visit to learn more.

Another way to help

An Adopt a Dog program has been established to help support Love on a Leash.

For $250, you can adopt a dog. Collectible "baseball cards" with the dog's picture and name are printed and distributed to help promote the program.

Call 815-625-0400, ext. 4472, for more information.

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