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Therapy Dogs Go Virtual

December 22, 2020

Before the coronavirus pandemic, therapy dogs at California’s Stanford Hospital would comfort patients and staff in the corridors and on wards. Now, they’ve gone virtual, cheering people up with appearances via video-conference.

Until March, volunteer coordinator Martha Kessler would arrange between eight and ten visits a month around the Stanford University campus for students and staff to see and pet the team of therapy dogs. Then the coronavirus took hold and the program came to an abrupt halt.

“The pandemic hit and the dogs basically were grounded, because we just could not do visits in good conscience because … they didn’t have any idea of how much transmission was happening by petting or whatever,” Kessler said.

About a month into California’s stay-at-home order, she decided to set up a virtual therapy dog program in partnership with Stanford Health Care’s PAWS program, which would send dogs into hospital wards before the pandemic. Every session is now watched by about 50 people, including university students, staff members and Stanford Health Care employees.

For Virginia Lee-Lew, who works at Stanford School of Medicine and calls herself a therapy dog ‘groupie,’ it’s all about stress relief.

“It just gives me that smile on my face … that warmth in my heart,” she said.

The dogs perform tricks, eat snacks and sometimes just snooze, while the owners talk about their dogs and answer questions from session participants.

“The first couple of times was a little bit a learning thing because it’s not that easy to keep your dog on camera, as you can imagine, for an hour,” Kessler said. “We started to get better at it.”

In the lead-up to the holiday season, some of the dogs sported Santa hats or had jingle bells attached to their collars or legs.

Kessler said she will keep going with the virtual program until in-person sessions resume, whenever that may be.

“People just really need a break, a mental break, and I think the dogs really provide that,” she said.

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