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Therapy Dogs Are Here To Help

May 5, 2020

Video call meetings and work-from-home regulations are no longer just for humans. Illinois-based organizations that offer therapy dog services are having their canines offer their emotional support online.

Typically in disasters, therapy dogs are dispatched to physically comfort those affected, said Tim Hetzner, president and CEO of Lutheran Church Charities. But, with growing concerns and physical limitations because of the COVID-19 pandemic, video calls have comforted those who need it the most. With the physical restrictions of the state’s stay-at-home order, many Chicagoans are also choosing to foster pets for companionship.

“Many states have stay-at-home orders, and we thought of how we could continue to touch people without being able to physically go out with the animals,” Hetzner said.

The organization, based in Northbrook, has a comfort dog ministry that trains dogs and dispatches them to other churches, schools and universities as well as places hit by disaster or crisis. Virtual appointments with the dogs can be made by filling out an online form. Currently, there are 130 trained comfort golden retrievers in 26 states, with 39 dogs across Illinois, according to the organization. The dogs work from home and are available for virtual visits around the clock. Trained caregivers house the good boys (and girls) when they are not hard at work.

“Many visits are for nurses and doctors,” Hetzner said. “We’ve done visits in emergency rooms where they have us on an iPad and pass the iPad around. It’s been rewarding because a lot of hurting people right now just need to talk and have a friendly face and a friendly canine face.”

The benefits of a friendly canine face even translate virtually, he said.

Megan Kirchen, a nurse at Amita Health St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, has helped coordinate Zoom calls with the comfort dogs over the last several weeks. Nurses working both day and night shifts in the COVID-19 ICU, COVID-19 medical unit and oncology nurses have had virtual visits with the dogs, said.

Calls have lasted up to 45 minutes, with nurses cycling through the video chats for a glimpse of the dogs, Kirchen said. She estimates more than 30 nurses have interacted with the dogs online.

“I’ve seen tears and smiles,” she said. “It’s great for the nurses to hear the gratitude from the local community. It’s good to see people come together nationally for the nurses and for the sacrifice that they’re giving. The visits are like a little break for their minds as they’re taking care of other people.”

According to recent research, physicians and nurses who interact with a therapy dog for several minutes have lower stress levels.

“We weren’t sure how the virtual visits would work, but people on calls just start smiling,” Hetzner said.

Though Canine Therapy Corps has suspended all training, certification and programs due to COVID-19, the organization is still looking for ways to engage people with their therapy dogs, said Ann Davidson, an operations manager with the organization.

People in search of virtual companionship can request video chat sessions and photos of the dogs, Davidson said.

“It’s tough for all of us right now. We can’t do the type of work we want to do,” she said of physical visits. “We are figuring out ways to keep helping. We know our dogs could help, but the risks are just too high and it’s just heartbreaking for every one of us.”

Davidson also mentioned people can seek animal companionship by fostering or adopting pets.

Since March 13, there have been more than 286 animals placed in foster homes said Bridget Bittman, a spokeswoman for The Anti-Cruelty Society.

Simon Elliott of West Town decided to foster a pet during the pandemic to help an animal rescue group, and get a little extra companionship. Elliot and his wife are fostering Taco, a 7-month-old hound mix, from The Anti-Cruelty Society.

Elliot said he had been wanting to get a dog for some time, and the stay-at-home order pushed him to start small and foster first.

“It’s a good way to help out these organizations,” Elliot said. “Now we walk around the area and it’s an excuse to get out.”

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