The PAWS Program at Dignity Health Chandler Regional Medical Center provides comfort to patients, four paws at a time 2

Every day at Dignity Health Chandler Regional Medical Center, teams of physicians, nurses, and other health specialists all work hard providing medical care for their patients.

In addition to this dedicated group of medical professionals, there is another team that is devoted to helping patients feel better and heal faster—only this group walks on four legs instead of two.

The PAWS Program at Dignity Health consists of 20 dog therapy teams who visit patients at Dignity Health Chandler Regional Medical Center.

As Lori Mercer, senior coordinator for volunteer services at Dignity Health Chandler Regional Medical Center notes, the program started in 2006 with just four dogs and has since grown steadily over the years.

“Today, it is the largest program of its kind in the East Valley,” Mercer says, adding that the PAWS Program also has 24 dog therapy teams at Mercy Gilbert Medical Center.

The 20 dog therapy teams at Chandler Regional Medical Center make an average of 215 visits a week, Mercer says.The dogs represent a wide variety of breeds and sizes, and include Golden Retrievers, a Shih Tzu, Chihuahua, German Shepherd, an Old English Sheepdog, Yorkie, Border Collie/Lab mix, a Lhasa-poo, Cocker Spaniel, a Red Setter and several other mixed breeds.

“We also have two new teams starting soon and are always continuing to recruit,” Mercer says.

To initiate a visit with a patient, Mercer says the PAWS two-legged volunteer knocks on the patient’s door and asks if the person would like a pet visit.

“Then they’ll come in and spend time with the patient. Each team has their own set of ‘trading cards’ with a picture of the therapy dog, and information on the back about the pet’s breed, hobbies, handler’s name and birth date,” Mercer says.

“While nursing and physician staff often request pet therapy visits, our patients are also able to ‘order’ a pet visit by using the Get Well Network, a service available from the television in their hospital room. If someone is not up for a visit or not comfortable around dogs, they are free to pass on the visit.”

Making a difference

Barb Farmer, manager of volunteer services for Dignity Health’s Chandler Regional and Mercy Gilbert Medical Centers, says seeing first-hand how much of a positive impact a visit from a dog can have on patients inspired her to help bring the program to the hospitals.

“When I first rounded with a pet therapy team and personally witnessed what an impact a dog could have for patients and staff, that’s when I knew the program needed to grow,” she says.

“When I first started managing the program, we had a Polaroid camera and would take photos of patients with their pet visitor. You could see how they would hold the photo so dearly and they shared that when they would have to take a test, or if they were lonely they could refer to their photo for comfort. The smiles on their faces were precious.”

Farmer was so encouraged by what she saw, she was inspired to bring some of the same canine kindness to patients by volunteering with her own dog, ScooterPie.

Selfless volunteers

Carolyn Craig is one of the volunteers in the PAWS Program. She and her poodle mix Beau, started visiting patients at Chandler Regional Medical Center in October, 2015.

Craig says she had planned to start volunteering with the program after she retired.

“I am a dog lover and felt it would be a way to work with my dog and give back to the community at the same time,” she says.

“I felt Beau had the right disposition to be a therapy dog and my veterinarian encouraged me to have him tested. He passed with high marks.”

Having the opportunity to interact with the patients, staff and visitors is a highlight of the pair’s time at the hospital, Craig says.

“Sometimes the families need a visit from the dogs as much as the patients, especially if they are waiting for a loved one to come out of surgery or treatment,” she says. “The staff frequently asks to pet Beau as well and it gives them a little break from a rough day.”

Craig says she is heartened by the tangible way a visit from Beau will brighten the spirits of patients of all ages.

“Beau and I recently visited with a teenage boy who was spending his birthday in the emergency room. I think the visit from Beau really brightened his day,” she says. “I enjoy the older patients who don’t have many visitors. They so enjoy having someone to chat with as much as they enjoy a visit with the therapy dogs.”

Craig says she is definitely not alone in enjoying her time as a member of the PAWS Program. Beau also clearly loves it too.

“I know Beau enjoys his time at the hospital. When we begin his bath and brush procedure, he gets excited as he knows it is his day to visit the hospital,” she says. “He enjoys all the attention he gets there and, occasionally, treats too.”

For more information about the PAWS Program, or to apply to become a volunteer, visit DignityHealth.org/ChandlerRegional.