by Lee Juslin
Darlene had worked as a surgical scrub nurse in a VA hospital for many years and also had taught Special Ed. She made her dogs a part of her work even when she had to sneak them in. I saw what a difference a dog can make with a child struggling with physical and emotional issues, she said.
When Darlene retired, she was determined to expand on her “unofficial” therapy dog program. Partnering with the St. Vincent Hospital facilities in Indiana, she established Therapets of IN, a 501C3 charity. The idea was to take rescued Cairns, many from Col Potter Cairn Terrier Rescue Network, along with West Highland terriers and train them to become certified therapy dogs. And, not just any therapy dogs. Darlene’s dogs are specially trained and go everywhere in the hospitals except the ER. They help with comatose patients, hospice, death notifications, high stress situations and more.
When Darlene takes in a young Cairn or Westie, the dogs get a special shorter cut which she calls the Hospital Cut, and are vetted by a veterinarian. They begin their introduction to the hospital by shadowing older, experienced therapy dogs. Training can start as young as three months when the dogs are carried into the hospital or ride in a little red wagon. At one year, when dogs can become certified and accepted into a therapy pet organization, Darlene applies for registration in one of the national organizations. She uses several and then begins the hospital visits in earnest. Usually each dog eventually shows a preference for a particular area and then trained for that area or department. Some dogs, however, do well in any situation.
Molly is one of Darlene’s dogs who can be counted on to work in any hospital situation. For instance, on one occasion Darlene and Molly were called in to see a young lady who had gone into a coma and the medical staff and her family had been unsuccessful in bringing her out of it. When Darlene and Molly arrived, the room was crowded with family, doctors, and nurses. Darlene placed Molly on the bed alongside the patient and gave the command for stimulation. Molly then began vigorously licking the girl all over being careful to avoid IVs and vents. After several minutes, the girl opened her left eye and smiled. Molly had done her job. Today that patient has earned her masters degree and works in Darlene’s program as a volunteer.
On another occasion, Darlene was called in to defuse a situation where a patient was refusing an IV. She had become very agitated and the nurses had had no luck in getting her to understand the importance of the IV. Darlene came in with one of her specially trained dogs, put the dog on the bed and as the patient began stroking the little terrier, Darlene talked to her about the need for the IV. Soon, with the patient listening to Darlene and the little Cairn snuggled against her with her head on the patient’s chest, the nurse was able to put in the IV.
Today, Therapets is beginning its thirteenth year and during that time, Darlene has brought in and trained twenty-six dogs. As the program grew, she took on volunteers, many of whom act as foster parents. Darlene owns the dog, but since she is limited in the number of dogs she can have at her home, some live in a foster home with a volunteer. Like the dogs who work with a trainer/behaviorist, the volunteers go through a training program too. They have to be able to lift a certain amount of weight, walk some distance comfortably and be available for regular, scheduled visits as well as call-outs.
Most of my volunteers are seniors, and many are retired teachers. We cover for each other on vacations and we move dogs around as needed. We’re like a family. Darlene and her volunteers wear pagers and have cell phones so that some are always available for emergencies 24/7.
Although Therapets works mostly with St. Vincent hospitals, they also go to comfort families when soldiers are being deployed, visit military kids who have lost a parent, work in Paws to Read type programs and visit in VA hospitals. Some even work in disaster response teams. Several years ago, a number of Darlene’s teams were called to the Indiana State Fairgrounds when the stage collapsed during a violent thunderstorm.
Darlene started her program in 2000 as a pilot program through St. Vincent Hospitals. At first, there were many doubters about the role of dogs in a hospital, especially as these were terriers and not known as therapy dogs. Today every doctor but one are on board with the program and as Darlene proudly says, “I wouldn’t trade my terriers for any dogs!”
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