Sophie is a beautfiul, jet-black Great Dane sporting a bedazzled, pink collar and a pearl necklace, she is a specially-trained therapy dog – one of twelve that take turns visiting patients at Memorial Hermann the Woodlands Hospital six days a week as part of a pet therapy program.
The therapy dogs are trained to be calm and friendly, to ignore loud noises and not to eat or lick anything that they aren’t supposed to. Sophie knows a few tricks, too. Not only does she “hug” rather than lick, but she gives handshakes and can show off her six-foot-tall frame by standing with her front paws on her handler, Dean Nistetter’s shoulders. Nistetter said that Sophie makes a special connection with critical patients and has a knack for calming nerves.
As Sophie makes her rounds at the hospital, she draws smiles, stares and lots of petting from, not only patients, but nurses – who know her by name and even sneak her treats, occasionally – physicians and visitors. She also had to take a detour at nearly every nurses’ station to appease the adoring staff.
For many patients, the therapy dog reminds them of their own pet at home.
The visit from the dog can bring more benefits than a smile. Nistetter said he sometimes sees a patient’s vital signs improve when interacting with Sophie.
“The medical benefits are well documented,” said Catherine Giegerich, chief nursing officer for Memorial Hermann the Woodlands Hospital. “It lessens anxiety … takes a tense, scary situation and brings a level of comfort they can’t get through medication.”
In addition to the emotional therapy she provides, Sophie also helps with physical and occupational therapy at the hospital’s TIRR inpatient rehabilitation centre. TIRR is focused on rehabilitating patients who have had strokes, brain or spinal cord injuries, or other neurological diagnoses. Therapists can incorporate the dogs into activities that help patients work on motor skills and range of motion.
“When you see people respond to her – it’s magic,” Nistetter said. “This is why we do what we do.”