Hospitals use pets to boost patient, staff health

Dogs are walking the halls of local hospitals, bringing smiles and a sense of wellbeing to patients and staff.

The animals and their handlers certified by the Pet Partners began visiting Methodist Mansfield Medical Center several days a week in April, hanging out with families in the waiting rooms and patients in their rooms. Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Waxahachie also has an Animal Assisted Therapy program, which started in 2008.

Pet Partners is one of the nation’s largest nonprofits that registers handlers of multiple species as volunteer teams providing animal-assisted interventions. Pet Partners’ curriculum and continuing education for licensed instructors, evaluators and handlers is the gold standard in the field and the organization insures certified animals in case any issues arise.

“It is very stressful for the patient and their families while they are at the hospital,” said Laura Sweatt, magnet program director and pet therapy coordinator for Methodist Mansfield. “The average length of of a stay here is four days.”

Families and patients are often hurting or scared when they are admitted to the hospital, she explained, but the dogs can help ease their bodies and minds.

“The dogs are a nice interruption or distraction,” she said. “When patients have less stress, their bodies are more accepting of treatments.

Research has shown petting an animal can lower a person's stress level and lower stress is better for healing, said Dr. Shelley Lenamond, medical director of hospitalists at Methodist Mansfield. The act of petting the animal releases endorphins, decreasing blood pressure and improving mood.

“I can tell you that when a patient feels good in their mind, their body is going to feel better. I think it will lead to decreased stays in the hospital,” Lenamond said.

Service teams Abby Wilson and border Collie Duchess, Steven Burn and chow Max and Molly Woodbury and chocolate lab Choco walked through the halls of Methodist Mansfield, while nurses and patients smiled and stopped to chat with the handlers. Some invited the dogs into their beds while others got down on the floor with them.

“It is just a distraction or a momentary ability to leave their current situation,” Sweatt said. “You can tell a difference on the unit before and after the pets arrive. When the pets arrive, the whole mood of the floor lightens.”

The staff get just as much therapy as the patients, said Sieglinde Alexandar, clinical secretary.

“They are calming,” Alexandar said as she petted Duchess. “Staff get so excited when they are here. This is a stressful floor. Patients get in moods because they are sick. But is it a nice dose of unconditional love.”

That leads to better patient care, Sweatt said.

“In an acute care unit, we are working in a high stress situation. What we do impacts people's lives. Stress translates to patients,” she explained.

Most of the patients and staff who are in need of a warm coat to pet will seek out the therapy dogs when they arrive, she said.

“People come out into the hallway and say I want them in my room,” Sweatt said. “A gentleman came out and said his wife had been here for four days and is really missing our dog.”

The smiles that dogs put on people's faces and the confidence that making a new friend can bring is why Burn said he has certified several dogs. He takes them to the hospital and reading programs at schools where the dogs help students who are having trouble reading, by providing a non-judgmental audience.

“It brings a piece of home to the hospital. Pets bring us joy and when they feel joy in their hearts, they feel better,” Lenamond said.

Pet Partners does not allow therapy dogs to work more than two hours a day, Burn said as he led Max down the hall to the next room.

“The dogs do get stressed out, they go home and crash,” he said.

The animals spend time in various ares like the waiting rooms, patient floors and the lobby. But there are always more people wanting to see the dogs than the time will allow, Sweatt said. When they are spending time with people, they have to keep an eye on the clock so everyone gets a visit.

“The issue is getting enough people and pets who are certified, to get them here often enough,” she said. “We would like to have them everyday, and if we had more handlers, they would be more relaxed and have time to spend with more people.”

To help fill in the ranks of therapy dogs and volunteer handlers, the hospital is hosting a one-day training session on Aug. 6. The session will begin at 8:30 a.m. and run until 5 p.m. inside the J. Randall Canedy Community Room at Methodist Mansfield.

Eligible dogs must follow basic obedience commands, have lived with their owner six months before they can be evaluated, be at least 1 year old before they are registered by Pet Partners and begin volunteering, must be reliable, predictable, controllable and should enjoy interacting with people. They cannot be aggressive toward other animals or people, including children, older citizens and machines that make strange noises.

This interactive class will teach dog owners the handling skills necessary for animal-assisted therapy visits along with requirements for evaluation and registration. Taught by Claire Peel, licensed instructor and evaluator, the workshop will teach dog owners the skills needed to visit safely with in hospitals, nursing homes, classrooms and other facilities. Attendees will also have the chance to observe a mock evaluation and learn what takes to become a Pet Partners team member. Individual evaluations for dog owners will be scheduled at the workshop.Lunch will be included for all attendees and is included in the registration fee of $50.

Class space is limited and registrations are required at For questions, please contact Abby Wilson at or 817-319-8943.

“We are so honored to be hosting the first Pet Partners workshop at Methodist Mansfield," says Methodist Mansfield President John Phillips. "We are proud of our Pet Partners’ therapy teams who give back to our community and help patients in so many ways.”

While the dogs are not curing any diseases or diagnosing any patients, they are helping those patients, families and staff who get to have a bright moment at the hospital, Sweatt said.

“It never fails, they always say that made my day,” she said.


Contact Bethany Kurtz at 469-517-1450 or email Follow her on Facebook at or on Twitter @bethmidlomirror.