Robert Mercer brushes the dog’s silky brown ears as he talks about the work he and Baxter have done at Mercy Hospital.
Baxter is an 18 month old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. He drives his own car through the halls of the hospital in style and puts a smile on the faces of everyone he greets.
Baxter was the first therapy dog to volunteer with Mercy. He started almost a year ago in the hospice and palliative care department.
The program has since expanded to include five dogs that tour the entire hospital. Three other dogs are in training to begin volunteering, and Mercer said the hospital needs more dogs to participate in the program.
Another therapy dog, Rusty, is a 3-year-old Miniature Golddoodle. Owner Patsy Hendrickson said Rusty excels at dealing with people in the waiting room or with patients who are on dialysis or on IVs — basically anywhere at the chair level where he can reach the people he’s trying to greet.
“So every dog has its strengths,” Hendrickson said.
Therefore, Mercer wants to expand the program so that there will be different types of dogs for different situations.
“We can expand the program — it’s nice to have a few dozen teams with big bouncy dogs for the kids and calm dogs like Baxter for the elderly,” Mercer said.
The hospital is open 24 hours a day, so volunteers can come any time of the day or night, whatever suits their schedule.
To volunteer, dogs are not allowed to pull on the leash or bark. They must be at least one year old. You must also enjoy meeting new people.
“You know, it’s more personality. Most dogs can be taught to have good manners – and he gets a little agitated at times but calms down in a few minutes – I said they must like meeting people. You can’t train that. You have to enjoy it,” Hendrickson said.
Before the dogs start the program, they must be certified by a national certification body. Mercer said at Mercy that they tend to use the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Traders are also required to complete training at Mercy to learn about privacy laws and similar issues.
It can take up to six months to go through this process.
Hendrickson and Mercer are both retired. Hendrickson said she always wanted to be a handler for a therapy dog.
“It gives back to the community,” Hendrickson said. “I have a friendly dog who loves people. People love dogs so it gives back to the community and it’s fun. It’s really fun to see the smile behind the mask. You can just see the people smiling with their eyes bringing them to themselves while waiting to find out how their loved one is doing in surgery or children waiting nearby not knowing what to do with will happen to them. He just brings people joy. He loves to. I love it.”
Alex Gladden is a graduate of the University of Arkansas. She previously reported for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Jonesboro Sun before joining the Times Record. She can be contacted at [email protected]