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Pet Therapy Program

MHP Patients and Staff Benefit from Pet Therapy Program

Mahaska Health Partnership Volunteers Lacie, Yeager and Lincoln love going to work once a week to visit and hang out with patients. They seem to instinctively know how best to relate to each individual they visit and when extra time and attention is needed.   

While all volunteers are important members of the healthcare team, the three golden retrievers and their trainers, Oskaloosa residents Vicki Koger and Victoria Laird, play a special role in providing comfort in a way that increases emotional well-being and promotes healing. Lacie and Yeager belong to Koger, and she regularly schedules Yeager to visit on Mondays and Lacie on Thursdays. Laird brings Lincoln to MHP on Fridays.

The dogs are graduates of Therapy Dog International, a volunteer group organized in 1976 to provide qualified handlers and their therapy dogs for visits to institutions, facilities and any other place where therapy dogs are needed. Canine membership includes both purebred and mixed breed dogs. All dogs are tested and evaluated for Therapy Dog work by Certified TDI evaluators. While many dogs provide love and companionship in the home, not all dogs are qualified or have the temperament suited to be a Therapy Dog.

“Victoria and I have been friends for a while, and we took the class together in Des Moines,” Koger said. “They look at the temperament of a dog and each dog has to pass a rigorous test, which includes some steps of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test. Some of the required elements are listening to commands, appearance and grooming, as well as friendliness and accepting a friendly stranger.”

Each dog is also required to have an annual Health Record Form that is completed and signed by a licensed veterinarian. According to MHP policy, patients must also agree ahead of time that they would like a visit. Hand hygiene is strictly enforced and the handlers must be present for each visit.

The Pet Therapy Program is currently utilized on the Inpatient Unit and at Vision Quest, MHP’s geriatric psychiatry unit designed to diagnose and treat the complex problems of senior adults. They have also made their services available at the MHP Hospice Serenity House, the new residential hospice facility on MHP’s campus. Visits are by appointment.

“We’ve been coming to Mahaska Health Partnership since May, and I truly didn’t realize it would be so special for everyone involved,” Laird said. “I’m learning to listen to Lincoln, because he seems to sense who needs him. I know how relaxing and what a stress relief being with a dog is, and since Vicki and I both had such affectionate, loving dogs, we thought this would be a great way to share them.”

Koger agreed and said she was surprised by the positive reactions not only from the patients but also staff. “I even get hugs from the staff. They know each dog’s name and they are very happy to see us when we come to visit. I truly believe we are doing God’s work, and my husband and I often pray over our dogs. We all see the emotional and physical healing people can get from this experience.”

According to MHP Vision Quest Nursing Director Lisa Cox, RN, the Pet Therapy Program has been a welcomed addition since it was re-established in May. “We have a dog come visit us three times a week,” Cox said. “After visits, patients often ask when they are coming back.

“Medical studies have proven that pet therapy benefits patients. People who are sick, lonely and even depressed will often respond to an animal offering genuine affection and unconditional love.”

Both Laird and Koger encourage other handlers to get involved in the program. “We’ve had requests to visit from nursing homes and assisted living facilities, but it’s a time commitment,” Laird said. “I’ve been teaching art at William Penn for 19 years, and right now it’s difficult to give this wonderful program more time.”

“If you have an affectionate, loving dog that you would like to share, you should look into Therapy Dogs International,” Koger said.  “Your dog doesn’t have to be a golden retriever or a purebred, they just need to have the right temperament and go through the training.”

For people interested in seeing if their dogs would be good therapy dogs, Laird and Koger recommend enrolling your pet in obedience classes with Julie McVay-Reeves from Shadowland Kennels in Oskaloosa.  The dogs went through training with her, and both ladies said she offered great advice when they were looking into the program. She can be reached at Shadowland Kennels, 641-673-5491.