By Lethbridge Herald on December 15, 2023.
Theodora MacLeod – LETHBRIDGE HERALD – Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
It was all paws on deck at Chinook Regional Hospital on Friday afternoon as a group of pet visitors and their owners gathered to support hospital staff and spread some Christmas cheer. The first of what Senior Operating Officer, Colin Zieber, says will hopefully be many visits from the dogs in an effort to lift spirits.
The five stars of the day included two veteran canine visitors, Hudson and Edward, along with three newbies, Rodeo, Halia, and Sammie, all of whom were outstanding in their role as adorable stress reliever.
For Brad Widdifield, participating in pet visiting is a long-time dream and English Cream Golden Retriever, Sammie was born for the job. The dog’s parents both trained to support war veterans returning from duty in Montana.
“We knew we had the right dog when she was just a puppy. My daughter’s friend lost her grandparents, and she (Sammie) went over and grabbed her leash and put it in her lap,” he says. “I had this in my mind for a long time, before we got her, I wanted to do this, and for seniors.”
A retired electrician, Widdifield worked at health care facilities and says he saw the impact the presence of a dog can make.
“When people would bring their pets it would make such a difference, even just for a few minutes, to the patients. Especially people who have maybe had dogs in the past, it brings back a lot of memories. The nurses say for some of the onset dementia patients it would make a huge difference, they would recall their dog’s name.”
Studies have shown that the presence of pets in medical settings has a noticeable impact on the wellbeing of patients in areas such as mood, energy level, and pain levels. A study published in 2009 in ‘Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice’ found “Compared with baseline, patients had significant decreases in pain, respiratory rate and negative mood state and a significant increase in perceived energy level.”
Zieber says he had heard about other facilities bringing animals in and how exciting it was for staff and patients, and he figured a little canine companionship was what the doctor ordered for the hardworking staff at Chinook Regional Hospital.
“I was feeling tired, I knew that our staff was feeling tired. It’s been a rough few years. And I thought, why not,” says Zieber adding that any time the pet visitor dogs are the in building he sees staff migrate towards them.
Even the surgeons joined in on the fun.
“I noticed a lot of physicians seem to be coming out of the ORs on their breaks and coming down here and petting a dog and laughing,” explained Zieber.
Volunteer Coordinator Hailey Stuckart says the hospital has been working with pet visitors for at least a decade, but this is the first time it has been a group gathering in one space.
“The turnout was far beyond what I expected,” says Stuckart. “Our pet visitors are amazing.”
As part of her role, Stuckart has the honour of meeting with the new pups and owners who are interested in becoming part of the pet visitors. She says there are a few criteria each animal must meet beyond needing up to date vaccines. Dogs who are well trained, easy going and, not too assertive are the best candidates she explains.
While the temperament of the dogs plays a role in their eligibility, the training both owners and dogs undertake is no small feat. For Widdifield and his dog Sammie, her training meant four months apart from each other.
“We did four months of boarded out training. So, she went to the facility for full training, and we trained as well, because we have to be trained to know how to handle them… about a month into it we trained with her.” He says after his family was able to grasp the skills needed by working with an already trained dog, they began travelling from Lethbridge to Magrath once a week to work with Sammie. “It was a tough four months.”
Sammie, and all the dogs on scene were top of the pack as they accepted endless affection from dozens of staff and patients, the whole time with wagging tails and sloppy puppy kisses. The room filled with a soundtrack of Christmas carols and laughter, there is no doubt that Rodeo, Edward, Halia, Hudson and Sammie were successful in their pursuit to spread a little howliday cheer.