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Pet and Wellness Service program brings dogs to patient beds

Jaxon and Charlie can’t walk down the halls of KSB Hospital without getting stopped, but they don’t mind the attention, even though they are there to work.

Jaxon, a 1-year-old havanese, and Charlie, a 5-year-old chihuahua, are part of the hospital’s nine-member Pet and Wellness Service (PAWS) program, which was started by patient advocate Sheila Brune in March.

Brune, who helped to start a similar program at CGH Medical Center, has been a nurse for 43 years.

“At the end of my career, I’ve gone to the dog side,” she said with a laugh Wednesday night while making the rounds with Jaxon and Charlie.

The dogs are taken from room to room by their owners. And each night, the nurses give Brune a list of rooms that have asked for a visit – usually about a dozen – but every night the dogs undoubtedly visit even more people.

They will visit in the halls as nurses and doctors, and family members visiting patients, stop the dogs, almost instinctively, to pet or just to spend a few moments with them.

Vicki Leigh, like many of the early dog owners in PAWS, also works at the hospital. Leigh said she wanted to join PAWS with her dog, Jaxon, because it was an “awesome” program.

“He’s my partner; that’s the best part about this for me,” Leigh said. “He is my partner here. We do this work together. And if we can bring a smile to a face, ease someone’s sorrow at missing their own dog, give someone hope or encouragement, then we walk out of here with happy hearts.”

Marybelle Novak, 88, was drinking coffee in her hospital bed Wednesday night when Leigh and Jaxon walked through the door.

“He’s so beautiful,” she said. “He’s so adorable.”

Novak said she had hounds and rat terriers when she was growing up. She wanted a visit Wednesday night, she said, for a change of pace.

Both Jaxon and Charlie made their way to Novak’s room separately and sat by her side as she petted them and talked with Brune, Leigh, and Charlie’s owner, Dee Duffy.

Before Jaxon and Charlie, or any other dog in the PAWS program, were able to start visiting patients, they had to pass a series of tests and a training day.

Before a dog can enter the program, it must be evaluated for obedience and personality. The dog must be up to date on its shots and treatments, and veterinarian records are turned over to Brune.

Then the dogs go through training, which consists of a practice visit, Brune said, where she usually plays the role of the patient. The dogs and the owners are taught what to do and how to act around the patients.

Where the dog sits during a pateint visit – in bed, in a chair, or on the floor – depends on the dog’s size and the patient’s status.

The dogs are also required to have been bathed within 24 hours of each visit, Brune said, although larger dogs are allowed to visit up to 2 days after a bath.

Sometimes the dogs remind the patients of their own pets, Brune said, and the bedside visit holds them over until they can return home.

That was the case with Sheila Berry, 65, of Amboy, who hadn’t seen her chihuahua, Baby, since she had been in the hospital.

Charlie’s spots and color reminded Berry of Baby. She talked about how she came to own Baby as if she were at the park talking with other dog owners and not in the hospital.

For Charlie and Jaxon, Wednesday night was just another trip to the office.

“It’s a good ministry,” Duffy said. “It’s very rewarding.”

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