Fostering a therapy dog means welcoming strangers and petting

Foster families and therapy dogs in training learn their roles together. Studies show pet therapy in hospitals significantly decreases pain, calms breathing, and boosts mood and perceived energy levels in patients.

Kate Spillane, a senior physicist in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Chester County Hospital, has wanted a therapy dog for as long as she can remember, in part because of her exposure to them at the hospital. Therapy dogs visit patients weekly in her department.

Three therapy dogs in a room at Chester County Hospital with medical personnel.
Chester County Hospital’s pet therapy program was launched in August 2016. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

It was the start of the COVID pandemic, and Spillane’s family was isolating at home, along with everyone else in the region. Her daughter, who was home from college, asked if they could adopt another dog to help break up the monotony. Spillane offered a compromise: Let’s foster a dog.

Spillane and Tia, a puppy who is half German Shepard and half mix of other breeds, began their training in September 2020—a therapy dog and their handler are certified together. The following May, they completed their evaluation and received their certification from Comfort Caring Canines, a Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania-based nonprofit.

“When we took the therapy dog evaluation test, they said, ‘You will see miracles happen,’” Spillane says. “I was like, OK. But you do. The dogs can do some amazing things for people.”

One study describes pet therapy in a hospital setting as a “low-tech, low-cost therapy” that helps significantly decrease pain, calm breathing, and boost mood and perceived energy levels. All of these effects are critical because, the researchers say, while patients generally report high levels of satisfaction with their nurses, doctors, and other support staff, they often rate their hospitalization experience low.

Chester County Hospital’s pet therapy program was launched in August 2016 by the hospital’s Relationship Focused Care Council, which also introduced Reiki and aromatherapy for patients. The pet therapy program followed a study by Annmarie Blair, who was conducting research on therapy dogs’ impact on cardiac rehab patients as part of her doctoral studies.

For three months, therapy dogs visited patients in the hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation facility twice a week. One of those patients, William Burch, says of the program, “The best thing the hospital has ever offered to patients. Dogs make everyone feel good.”

While the dogs are always on a leash and their time in the hospital is precisely planned, Spillane says they often garner attention—and pets—walking the hallways, too, because they wear vests that say “Therapy Dog, Pet Me.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.