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May 7, 2004
Volume 41, No. 10


Hospital hounds: Dog visits offer bright spot in patients' stay
UI research bank to collect donated umbilical cord blood from new moms
From the Joffrey Ballet to Aretha Franklin to 42nd Street, Hancher season promises to deliver
Sharing the arts with Iowa: UI program sends artists around the state
UIHC unites patients, pets

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Hospital hounds: Dog visits offer bright spot in patients’ stay

UIHC patient smiles at the dalmatian at her bedside.
Jill Newhouse, a patient in the Intermediate Pulmonary Care Unit, gets a visit from Mabel, one of UI Hospitals and Clinics’ canine volunteers in the Furry Friends certified dog visitation program. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

On Thursday mornings, like clockwork, Dorothy and Mabel show up at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, raring to go. Even though Mabel’s in her senior years, Dorothy and others who know her well say she’s one of the most giving, caring, and dedicated souls.

These two best friends and hospital volunteers go room-to-room on the Intermediate Pulmonary Care Unit, asking if patients would enjoy a visit. Sometimes staff members peek in on them with a smile, or wait in the hall to say hello.

On one recent visit, Mabel happily greeted Dick Hines, a UI Health Care social worker. He called her a sweetie and stroked her head.

Then he gave her a dog biscuit.

So, Mabel’s not your typical volunteer. Mabel, a 12-year-old pointer-dalmatian mix, and her handler, Dorothy Gerr, are one of two canine-human teams participating in the hospital’s Furry Friends certified dog visitation program.

Even though the program officially began last year, it was 20 years in the making, says Sue Tietz, a senior recreational therapist and one of the program’s coordinators.

Long ago, the hospital formed a committee and delved into all sorts of concerns about safety and logistics, working to get everyone on board.

So far, Gerr’s team and one other—Judy Thorn and her 10-year-old terrier mix, Sullivan—are OK’d to work in several psychiatric units and the pulmonary care unit. Even so, many steps are taken to ensure patients’ health and security and the animals’ well being.

The canine/human teams go through rigorous training. They must be certified by the Delta Society, the international organization that trains service and therapy animals, and intensely screened by Tietz and Kristi Nove, another therapist and program coordinator. Handlers are required to participate in volunteer training, and dogs must pass numerous physicals and specimen tests to continue.

“It’s a lot to go through to do something that you don’t get paid for. It’s not a job for them, it’s very special to them,” Tietz says. “These owners are very dedicated. And it’s this very intrinsic thing. They love their pets and want to share them and their gifts.

“I think the teams are as rewarded as the patients by the visits.”

Dog owners Gerr and Thorn, and their canine companions, are visitation veterans. Gerr adopted Mabel nine years ago and they started visiting hospitals in Atlanta, Ga., shortly thereafter. They knew they couldn’t give it up when they moved to Iowa City a year and a half ago.

Gerr, whose husband Fred is a professor in the College of Public Health, serves as pastor of Viola United Methodist Church and also is a chaplain at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

Thorn and Sullivan tallied more than 500 hours of volunteer service at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill hospital while Thorn finished graduate school. They moved to the Midwest three years ago, when Thorn’s husband, Kevin Satisky, became a resident in psychiatry at UI hospitals.

Man stops in the hospital hallway to pet a dalmation.  

Dick Hines, a UI Health Care social worker, and Mabel greet each other in the hallway of the Intermediate Pulmonary Care Unit, where Mabel was visiting patients. (Above: Hand-paw graphic courtesy of Cody Ash, design artist for the hospital’s Joint Office for Marketing and Communication.)

Thorn, now on the biology faculty at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., spends her weeks there, then drives here every Friday for Sullivan’s hospital visits and some catching up on her family life.

With all the other activities and responsibilities in their lives, why do these two handlers make time for volunteering with their dogs?

“Sullivan’s always been a big suck-up. If he had his way, he’d be a Wal-Mart greeter and say hello to everyone who walked in. He just loves people. I love seeing him and the patients’ reaction to him,” Thorn says. “I can’t not go. I have this gift—Sullivan—and I’ll only have him for who knows how many years. I may never get this kind of opportunity again.”

Gerr feels much the same way.

“If I were in the hospital, I’d want a dog to visit me,” she says. “I believe strongly in the connection between animals and people. Mabel just loves hanging out with people. It’s her thing.”

They’re certainly not alone. The Delta Society has screened and trained more than 6,400 pet-partner teams in the United States and four other countries. They help nearly 1 million people a year. UI Hospitals and Clinics’ visitation teams see about 20 or so patients a week, on average.

Judith Crossett, associate professor (clinical) of psychiatry, has long been an avid supporter of dog visitation.

She notes that a visiting animal can offer patients something to look forward to during sometimes long, dull days. A patient’s hospital stay also may be interspersed with painful episodes—such as shots, foul-tasting medicine, uncomfortable positioning for tests or X-rays, or doctors asking intrusive questions.

“The pet does none of that. It’s wonderful at just being present with people. Our pastoral care services do that too, but ‘being present with’ is a skill people have to learn, while the pet does it naturally, without reservation,” Crossett says.

She says she has seen patients relax with a pet in a way they don’t with people, and they continue to talk about the animal after the visit is over. Particularly in elderly patients who tend to talk very little, she says, the “opening up” is wonderful to see.

“Patients start talking with each other, with staff, just reminiscing,” she says. “Anything that gets the interest and thoughts out into the world and gets them interacting is beneficial.”

One of the most important aspects of dog visitation, Tietz believes, is that patients make the choice to participate or not. Maybe a patient’s more of a cat person. Or allergic. Or too sick to be bothered that day.

If a patient is in isolation, he or she can choose to have Mabel or Sullivan sit by the room’s window and peer in. But it’s not a requirement. No one’s forcing a furry one on them.

That actually can be very empowering to a hospital patient, Tietz says.

“There’s a lot during a hospital stay that patients have no control over. They have to take medicine. They must have their vitals taken. They have to endure a lot,” she says. “Here’s something they can enjoy if they want to, or they can say no. It gives them a choice.”

by Amy Schoon

Editor’s note: For more information on the Furry Friends program, e-mail To learn more about the Delta Society, go to And a related article in this issue about how patients can have their own pets visit them.



Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright the University of Iowa 2003. All rights reserved.


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