Sign In

Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort Online

May 7, 2020

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a corgi named Tucker spent several hours a month comforting patients at Stanford Hospital and enjoying cuddles from medical students who were having a rough day or were homesick for their own dogs.

Now, regional shelter-in-place orders have sidelined Tucker from his work as a registered therapy dog at Stanford Hospital and Stanford University. Tucker seems to enjoy the extra four walks a day with his owner, volunteer Betsy Grotte, near their San Carlos home; but she can tell he’s not pleased when she won’t let him greet his admiring fans. He doesn’t understand social distancing.

That doesn’t mean he’s lost the power to make people feel better. So, Grotte and Tucker have moved to Zoom with several other therapy dog teams to provide virtual K-9 comfort.

Owners also are using other creative ways to to extend therapy dogs’ reach during the pandemic, including using Instagram and special videos.

“It’s just fun to get our dogs more involved — whether they’re here or not here,” said Molly Pearson, a child-life specialist who oversees the Pet Assisted Wellness Services program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

Martha Kessler, an executive director of finance and administration at the Stanford University School of Medicine, is the volunteer coordinator of the therapy dog visits on campus; and she organized recent Zoom events in partnership with Stanford Health Care’s PAWS program.

Kessler figured that putting dogs on camera would at least be entertaining; she also hoped it would provide emotional support during the pandemic.

Personal experience told her that some dogs are well-suited to connecting via screen. Case in point: Whenever Kessler joins a work meeting via video conference, one of her English golden retrievers, also named Tucker, butts in.

“He totally lays under the table until I get on a Zoom call. Then he has to bomb it, every time,” Kessler said. She initially shooed him away, thinking it was unprofessional to have her dog in a meeting, but, “People were like, ‘Why are you putting him down?'” she said.

Still, holding pet therapy sessions involved more than inviting interested people to a Zoom call. Trainers had to sort out a number of details: How would the audience interact with the dogs? Should owners hold the dogs? Play with them on the ground? Set them free to explore, play or even sleep during the sessions?

Nearly 80 people — a mix of university students, staff members and Stanford Health Care employees — tuned in last week for a Zoom event with about a dozen dogs.

Tucker the corgi handled the moment by lying contentedly on the couch. Viewers wished one dog, Oscar, a happy birthday, and made comments or asked questions about how dogs are selected for the program.

Unlike service dogs that are trained to assist their handlers, therapy dogs have one role: to cheer people up. Their owners are typically community volunteers whose dogs are registered with Pet Partners, a national pet therapy organization.

Before being matched to volunteer opportunities, dogs are screened for such things as temperament, adaptability and sociability with strangers. A few dogs, like Grotte’s Tucker, have additional qualities that allow them to visit patient rooms. That work requires dogs to be small enough to lie on patients’ beds, and to have a calm temperament, unlikely to be fazed by disturbances or loud noises.

Besides using Zoom, Stanford-approved pairs are finding other ways to connect.

Kessler shares photos of the dogs and posts event links on the Stanford Pet Partners Instagram account.

At Packard Children’s, Pearson is collaborating with the hospital’s Sophie’s Place Broadcast Studio to produce “Weekly Dose of Donnie” video segments to play in patients’ rooms.

Donnie, a full-time facility dog donated by Canine Companions for Independence, is familiar to families and staff because she accompanies Pearson in her work preparing children for surgery.

Donnie serves as the video segment’s “host,” and last week two of her therapy dog friends made appearances, “talking” and updating young patients about their activities during their hiatus.

Next week, child-life staff will start one-on-one virtual therapy dog visits for hospitalized children, Pearson said.

She said she’d love for virtual therapy to continue, even after shelter-in-place orders are lifted: “Animals lift people’s spirits, whether it’s in person or watching videos.”

Register Your Dog

  • Most Recent News

    Oscar The Blind Dog

    In the weeks leading up to a heated presidential election, another close race played out that had dog lovers across the country faithfully voting online every 24 hours for their favorite furry friends. For four weeks, from Sept. 10 to Oct. 9, nearly 1 million votes were cast in Garden & Gun magazine’s Good Dog […]

    Read more

    Genius Dog Challenge

    Six dogs are competing to become the world’s smartest dog – a title reserved for the pooch that learns words the fastest. Shany Dror is a driving force behind the Genius Dog Challenge, which is live streamed on Facebook and YouTube every week until December 16, when the winner will be announced. The canine challenge […]

    Read more

    Finding Homes For Dogs

    Adoptable Animal Rescue Force gives back to the community by finding the right homes for dogs. We’ve been a Teller County nonprofit, no-kill rescue since 1999. Social networking has allowed us to expand our services in recent years to include dogs coming in from high kill shelters in New Mexico and Texas. There are times […]

    Read more

    Service Dog Retiring

    Talking to police or giving testimony at a courthouse, can be a scary experience for many. Since 2014, service dogs have been allowed in the courtroom to provide emotional support for those in need. For Emery Baert, having Madison with her made a huge difference. “If she wasn’t there, to this day, I wouldn’t know […]

    Read more

    A Shelter Dog's Life

    The sound of paws and claws precedes Isabella’s entrance. She bursts out of the Worcester Animal Rescue League’s front door, dragging Sara McClure, WARL’s dog program coordinator, behind her. McClure has two hands on Izzy’s bright red leash as the pit bull mix comes barreling into the parking lot. McClure motions for me to take […]

    Read more

    Veterans Court Therapy Dog

    Howard County Superior Court II Judge Brant Parry stood in his courtroom last week and looked around like he had lost something. “You want to see her?” he asked, still looking around the mostly empty room. A few moments later, a brown fluff of fur came bounding through an open back door, prompting instant smiles […]

    Read more