Therapy dogs bring joy to patients at PVMC

By Christine Hollister
Posted 1/5/10

Nine-year-old Richard Oliver paces back and forth along the wall in a room in the physical therapy department at Platte Valley Medical Center.     On the other side of the room sits …

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Therapy dogs bring joy to patients at PVMC


Nine-year-old Richard Oliver paces back and forth along the wall in a room in the physical therapy department at Platte Valley Medical Center.

    On the other side of the room sits hospital volunteer Susan Deniston alongside her 7-year-old yellow lab, Avalanche, who calmly lies with her head on the carpet.  

    “Richard, come over and pet Avalanche,” Susan says.

    Richard, who is autistic and has been deathly afraid of dogs since age five, continues to pace, but steps a little closer to the dog.

    “I love Avalanche,” he says.

    Deniston is part of the therapy dog volunteer program at Platte Valley Medical Center. Therapy dogs can be seen throughout the hospital, working with patients and visitors in nearly every hospital department, including the emergency room, ICU and physical therapy. The program currently has seven volunteers, but will add another six in January.

    Angela Oliver, Richard’s mother, said she has witnessed her son take huge leaps since he began working with Deniston and Avalanche more than a year ago.

    “He is absolutely terrified of dogs,” she said as Richard finally walks across the room to Avalanche to first touch her hind leg, then to give her a quick hug. “He freaks out. We weren’t able to go to a softball game without him trying to jump on my shoulders to try to get away from a dog.  

    “I see progress every time,” she said.

    And the program is doing much more than simply helping Richard overcome his fear of dogs, it’s helping him with language, said PVMC speech language pathologist Sandy Milway.

    “We were some of the biggest advocates to getting this started, it really elicits language,” Milway said of the program. “For Richard to be coming up with some spontaneous comments like this is great.”

    Kathie Young is the director of volunteer services at PVMC. She said the therapy dog program, which began at the hospital in 2004, is probably the most popular with the hospital’s patients.

    “We’ve gotten a great response from patients, staff and visitors,” Young said. “It brings smiles to people’s faces and lowers stress levels. It’s huge.”  

    PVMC President John Hicks said he is proud of the therapy dog program and assures patients and visitors that the dogs are highly trained, certified and healthy.

    “This program really makes a difference to the patients,” he said. “It’s just another thing you can do to make it feel more comforting here.”

    Deniston has worked as a volunteer with the program for more than two years. She said she typically visits the hospital with Avalanche at least two days a week for three or four hours at a time.

    “I can’t even describe how it makes me feel,” she said. “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

    Ann Przybyla, and her dog, Katie, a 7-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, have worked with the program for about three and a half years.

    “I just can’t believe how I feel when I work here,” she said.

    Przybyla said not all dogs are cut out to be therapy dogs and that training must be complete so dogs can demonstrate they are able to follow basic commands and remain calm in a hectic hospital atmosphere. After training is over, an evaluation is done with the volunteer and the dog to determine how well they work together as a team.

    In addition to bringing joy to the lives of the patients, staff and guests at PVMC, Deniston said the program has become a valuable part of her own life.

    “It’s been phenomenal,” Deniston said. “I’m so proud of this program and I’m excited about getting new volunteers. We have a wonderful team.”



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