News & Events

Healing Hounds

January 20, 2012

There is a new volunteer at Backus, but it may not be who you expect.

Chance is a new member of the hospital’s therapeutic pet program, and the 160-pound Irish Wolfhound eagerly walks the floors of the hospital for visits with patients.

Karen Eberl, Chance’s owner and co-volunteer, has been volunteering with her dogs since 1995. She has worked with six different dogs, even one Great Dane.

She said people are surprised when they see large dogs as therapy dogs, but Chance loves to be around people. Ms. Eberl has had Chance since he was 11 weeks old, he is now 20 months. She said she has been hooked on volunteering ever since she tested with her first dog, seeing the looks on people’s faces and hearing the positive comments.

“You have to make sure it is something the dog enjoys as well, that you are not stressing the dog out,” she said.

The Backus therapeutic pet program is a collaboration between the Hospital’s Center for Healthcare Integration and Volunteer Services. Amy Dunion, RN, Coordinator of CHI, said there are six active teams that visit designated patient care areas at Backus and there has been an overwhelmingly positive response since the program began in 2002.

Barbara Cambria, who started the therapeutic pet program at Backus and volunteers with her own dogs, said it is always exciting to welcome another new and experienced handler and canine to join the other teams in the program.

Ms. Cambria said hospitalization of a loved one can be a stressful and upsetting time for all involved. “Sometimes, when there are visitors in a patient’s room, a dog will visit and seek out one person in the group initially and seem to ignore others. Later, conversation reveals that intuitive dog just knew who was emotionally fragile or very worried and needed companionship first,” she said.

Ms. Eberl started volunteering at Backus last March in the escort office, helping to escort patients and run errands. Her first night as a pet therapy volunteer at Backus was in January.

“Our first day couldn’t have been better,” she said. With some patients, Chance sits patiently by their side and lets them pet him. With one patient, Chance placed his front paws slowly on her bed to get closer to her, to perhaps snuggle or so she could reach under his chin where he likes to be touched.

“It is fine as long as the patient is comfortable, this woman clearly loved it, he was getting good vibes from her,” Ms. Eberl said.

“If you are a dog lover, when a dog comes in the room it engages you, you forget whatever is stressing you,” Ms. Eberl said. She said she sees the reaction in families and hospital staff as well. “It takes them out of their element and then they are able to go back fresh, it is like when a baby visits, it resets your focus,” she said.

Chance has volunteered with Hospice of Southeastern Connecticut since October, the team will visit people in their home or at different facilities.