Furry Friend Brings Hope and Healing to Heart Patients

February 12, 2018 6:00 AM

A Michigan Medicine therapy dog brightens the day of people who seem to need her most. See what Anna does on her daily “rounds.”

At barely 3 years old, Anna has already covered a lot of ground including much of the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center. The friendly golden retriever is often the center of attention there.

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But it’s all in a day’s work for the young therapy dog, who doesn’t get caught up in the fanfare. The busy pup has tasks to do and patients to see.

She was born into the job at Canine Assistants, a nonprofit organization in suburban Atlanta that places service and companion dogs with individuals and facilities to provide therapy and intervention services.

Anna’s training began at 6 weeks old, when the puppy was carried into rooms at an Atlanta health care system to be exposed to the elements of a hospital setting: sounds, equipment, emotions and more.

A search for her full-time assignment soon followed.

“The staff from Canine Assistants came to our site and observed our needs,” says the Rev. Christina Wright, Ph.D., one of Anna’s two handlers and a chaplain with Michigan Medicine’s Spiritual Care Department. “They then identified Anna, who proved to be specifically suited to our needs.”

Well-loved visitor

Early exposure to a hospital environment helps the service animals feel comfortable and provide special comfort.

Says Wright: “These dogs can sense many things — including people who are in distress — often better than we can.”

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Indeed, Anna’s sixth sense has quickly made her a star at the Frankel Cardiovascular Center, where she goes from room to room, greeting patients who are open to visits.

But the canine doesn’t approach without permission: A simple “paws up” command lets Anna know she can get closer to a patient by gently placing her front paws on the bed.

“Anna is very attuned to emotion,” says Wright. “She might sense a person is in distress and lead us to him or her. This often opens the door to a conversation with that individual, who then might share their emotions with us. Maybe they just lost a loved one, for example.

“Some patients tell us they were very anxious, and Anna’s visit calmed them down or helped them feel less lonely or fearful.”

Shared bonds

The Rev. Lindsay Bona, manager of the Spiritual Care Department and Anna’s primary handler, says therapy dogs give unconditional love: “They help patients cope, no matter the situation.”

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Interaction between humans and animals has many benefits, according to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute. Among them: a positive influence on blood pressure, heart rate and hormones associated with well-being such as cortisol, oxytocin, prolactin and dopamine.

That’s important for those recovering from surgery or illness.

But Frankel patients aren’t the only ones who rely on Anna. “She visits with staff, too, and they often say they’re rejuvenated by her,” says Bona.

Anna visits the hospital every weekday, with varying hours. “When working, she’s calm and gentle,” Bona says. “Her ability to sense emotion is inherent.

“Patients and staff sometimes ask, ‘How did she know I needed her right now?’”

Off the job, Anna is playful, often meeting up with fellow Michigan Medicine therapy dog Denver for a well-deserved play date after putting in a full day delivering a hefty dose of medicine for the soul.

Photos by Leisa Thompson