Kate Spillane, PhD, DABR, 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.
Through the years, she tried training a number of her family’s dogs, but none of them really had the personality for it, she says. One treated everyone like a threat to Spillane. Another was just way too hyper. And then Tia came along.
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, an older dog.
But then someone from the rescue group called in desperation. “We have a puppy coming on a transport from a kill shelter in South Carolina with nowhere to go,” the rescue worker said. “Would you take a puppy instead?” Spillane couldn’t say no, even though she suspected her two current dogs wouldn’t be very welcoming.
Tia fit right in, though. She’s half German Shepherd. The other half is comprised of equal parts Labrador, Golden Retriever, English Setter, and another breed that couldn’t be identified by a DNA test. “She weighs just over 50 pounds, but she looks bigger than she is because she’s so fluffy,” Spillane says.
It’s a coat that needs to be pet. Fortunately, Tia loves to be pet. That’s how Spillane began to realize she might finally have her therapy dog.
“A lot of the dogs I’ve encountered during therapy training just tolerate being pet,” she says. “Tia, however, goes from one person to another and solicits attention. She’s super-outgoing and super-intuitive.”
Spillane and Tia 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, PA-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.”
Distractions improve the experience
One study (of many) described 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 said, 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, DNP, MSN, BSN, RN, 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, said of the program, “The best thing the hospital has ever offered to patients. Dogs make everyone feel good.”
Blair, a member of the Relationship Focused Care Council, said, “It’s such a morale booster for patients.”
Today, about 20 therapy dogs and their handlers, all volunteers, participate in the hospital’s program, including Spillane and Tia. All of them are certified. Each week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, a few of the dogs at a time visit patients in predesignated units. Nurses can request the dogs visit their unit, and they’ll confirm which patients want to be visited beforehand. A dog and their handler will typically spend about five to 10 minutes with a patient before moving on to the next.
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.”
Spillane and Tia participate only occasionally due to her work schedule. However, they do take part in appropriate weekend events, like Cancer Survivors Day in the summer. When an opportunity to visit Penn Medicine Radnor, which is relatively close to her home, lines up with a day Spillane plans to be working from home, they’ll also see staff there over lunch. Eventually, she’d like to visit patients there, too.
And Spillane and Tia are very active volunteers outside of working hours. They were recently selected to participate in a new crisis response team that will serve Greater Philadelphia. Spillane also founded the pet therapy program to help students reduce stress during their studies at Ursinus College, in Collegeville, PA. At the first session, it was just her and Tia and about 80 students. Tia took her time and eventually made it around to every one of them.
Spillane believes Chester County Hospital’s program gained immediate traction because of its deep and longstanding volunteer network. And she notes that therapy dogs in the hospital seem especially helpful since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve become much more attuned to our mental health during COVID, and this is where I’ve seen the biggest difference with our patients and staff, including myself, during a visit from the therapy dogs,” Spillane says. “They come into the room, and everyone’s mood lifts, their outlook brightens.”
A comfort to everyone
Spillane and Tia have encountered patients in all kinds of conditions. One of the interactions that resonates with her most was with a patient who probably never even realized they were there.
On this day, they entered the Labor and Delivery Unit and were escorted into the room of a mother who had delivered her baby just a few hours earlier. While Spillane talked with her and her partner, Tia spotted the bassinet next to the mother’s bed. She quietly walked over to it, then gently put her nose against it — just to let its little occupant know she was there, and that everything was going to be OK.