Between the Lines

With columnist Anna Marie Lux.

Paws for health: Therapy dogs make rounds at St. Mary's Janesville Hospital

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Anna Marie Lux
July 4, 2015

JANESVILLE--Murphy knew what to do.

The sprawling dog sat like a gentleman and let young Ayden Schoenherr and his older brother croon over him.

A short time earlier, 2-year-old Ayden had fallen from a dresser.

His mom and dad brought him to the emergency room at St. Mary's Janesville Hospital.

While there, Julie Schneeberger asked if they would like a visit from Murphy, her 84-pound therapy dog.

The boys couldn't resist the chance to sidle up to him.

For four years, Schneeberger has visited the hospital with Murphy, where the Irish wolfhound mix makes rounds among patients and staff.

Murphy is one of four regular therapy dogs at the hospital, where the canine provides comfort and companionship to people who welcome him.

Therapy Dogs International, a group with high standards, certifies the four-footed therapist to ensure he is up to the challenge.

“He's a highly trained dog,” Schneeberger said. “He is recertified annually.”

Among Murphy's talents: He is not startled by loud noises. He is comfortable away from his owner. He does not eat things off the floor.

Most of all, he is calm and caring.

“You can't teach a dog some things,” Schneeberger explained. “It has to be in him.”

Only the best of the best become certified.

“We don't want to ever endanger patients,” said Kathryn Scott, hospital spokeswoman. “It takes time to get certified, but it's worth it.”

Owners, too, are put through a full day of classroom training during certification.

The hospital's goal is to bring more handlers with therapy dogs into the program.

Canine candidates must never show signs of aggression toward people or other dogs.

Scott said they also must:

-- Show willingness to meet people.

-- Sit politely when petted or groomed.

-- Walk on a leash without straining.

-- Obey commands.

-- Tolerate medical equipment.

On a recent visit to St. Mary's, Schneeberger and Murphy greeted emergency room staff. They comforted a family with a young child being checked after a fall. They offered warm paws to hospital patient Shirley Colson, who has four dogs at home.

“It will pick up her spirits because she misses her dogs,” Colson's son Steve said.

With prodding from Schneeberger, Murphy gently hopped onto Colson's bed for a short time. She smiled and reached for him.

Murphy comes well-groomed for close encounters.

Schneeberger gives him a breath freshener before he meets the public, and she makes sure his oral health is tiptop. Murphy's long curly hair and toenails are clipped, and his ears are cleaned and sprayed regularly.

Murphy, who is 36 inches tall at the shoulders, is perfect for visiting patients.

“His ears are at the height of hospital beds,” Schneeberger explained. “People can reach over and stroke his ears. You can just see them smile as they touch him.”

She volunteers with Murphy to give her life more meaning.

“I believe we are all here for a purpose,” Schneeberger said. “It's all about what this dog can do for people.”

Emergency room doctor Mike Foley affirms the benefits of canine therapy.

“Most people have positive feelings with a pet,” he said, “and they release positive chemicals in the brain.”

Pets naturally lower blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety, Foley said.

In addition, dogs help bridge the communication gap in the emergency room between doctor and patient.

“I meet people under the worst of conditions,” Foley said. “Sometimes it's hard to make connections in a short time. Patients are more forthright and relaxed about giving information after seeing a dog.”

For many, Murphy brightens the day.

“Anything that can make a patient feel more at home is good,” Foley said. “It seems the pet therapy is always positive.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email [email protected].

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