When experienced pet handler Linda Dunn moved to Jacksonville, she approached numerous hospitals about starting a pet therapy program. When she shared this vision with Wolfson Children’s Hospital leaders, they saw it as an innovative way to improve patients’ experiences. Dunn promptly joined the Wolfson Children’s Auxiliary, established the program, and made the hospital’s first pet therapy visit in May 1995 with her Labrador retriever, Jenni.
In May 2020, the Wolfson Children’s Hospital Pet Therapy Program is celebrating its 25th anniversary. In that time, pet therapy dogs and handlers have visited tens of thousands of patients and families to provide emotional support during their hospitalization. To commemorate Pet Therapy’s contribution to Jacksonville’s children and families, Mayor Lenny Curry has proclaimed May 15, 2020, to be Wolfson Children’s Hospital Pet Therapy Day.
Today, the Auxiliary has a roster of 13 certified pet therapy teams, each made up of one handler and one dog, with one more duo in training.
"Our Pet Therapy Program is a unique and important part of how we care for our patients,” said Michael D. Aubin, FACHE, president of Wolfson Children’s Hospital. “These remarkable dogs and owners reduce anxiety for and bring comfort to our patients, their families and our team members the moment they walk in the door. The bonds our patients and therapy pets form is evidence of how important the program becomes to them during their stay."
Pet therapy is an evidence-based way to support children’s healing, no matter the reason they’re in the hospital. Studies show that spending time with a certified therapy dog triggers the release of endorphins, which eases pain and discomfort, lowers blood pressure, and reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. When patients need to practice their motor skills or learn to walk again, providers can call on therapy dogs to motivate them to practice walking, petting and reaching to tug or toss toys. Wolfson’s pet therapy teams not only visit patients, but also provide support to nurses, physicians and other providers during special events, like Nurses Week. Baptist Health also offers pet therapy visits at two of its locations thanks to 15 handler and dog volunteer pairs.
Pet Therapy Chair and volunteer handler Jeanne Shober says she (and her dog Bear) see the benefits of pet therapy firsthand.
“Nearly every child we visit has a beloved pet at home that they miss terribly,” Shober said. “Sharing our dogs with the children, their parents and the staff helps to bring smiles and a touch of happiness to their day. Sharing our pets is also rewarding to the handlers and their dogs. It’s such a privilege for us to be a part of this wonderful hospital.”