Therapy dogs: With soft eyes and furry ears, these volunteers at Overlake and other area hospitals reassure patients, families

Overlake Medical Center patient Kathy Barnes talks with Karen Keenan and her therapy dog, Viansa, a 6-year-old yellow lab, in her hospital room in Bellevue on Tuesday. Keenan said hospital patients often feel happiness and relief during Viansa’s visits. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

During a recent afternoon shift change on the oncology floor at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, the usual suspects crowded the hallway: nurses, aides, visitors, patients in wheelchairs towing IV poles.

But one visitor quickly attracted a circle of admirers: Viansa, a yellow lab with soft ears and understanding eyes.

Viansa is part of a team of five certified therapy dogs who visit the hospital weekly with their handlers to bring patients a measure of calm and reassurance. Several hospitals in the region, including Seattle Children’s and Swedish Medical Center, have added therapy dogs to their ranks of volunteers.

The dogs listen attentively as children read to them, lay a head on the shoulder of the infirm and ease the tension in a room full of anxious family members.

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Karen Keenan, Viansa’s handler and a nurse herself, said that being in the hospital is often a difficult time in a person’s life, scary for both the patient and the family. A dog can offer comfort and unconditional love.

She recalled a past visit to a hospital room.

“One family was surrounding the dying patient. Viansa went from person to person. They were loving on her, crying,” she said.

Viansa was trained as a puppy to be a Guide Dog for the Blind, but she had a spot on her own eye that veterinarians worried would become a cataract. A blind dog couldn’t lead the blind, Keenan said, but her temperament — easygoing and well-behaved — made her a perfect therapy dog.

Certified, trained

To become part of Overlake’s dog-therapy team, a dog must be at least a year old, be certified as a therapy dog, and undergo additional training in hospital procedures and protocol.

Brenda Epstein, Overlake’s resource specialist, said the dogs have to have excellent behavior, obey commands and remain calm in the presence of noise and sudden movements.

It might seem counterintuitive to introduce a dog into a hospital’s sterile environment, but Epstein said the dogs are bathed and brushed before they arrive for their shift. And the handlers themselves use hand sanitizer both before and after entering a patient’s room. She notes that the dogs can’t visit isolation rooms, where the risk of infection is high.

Each dog that completes the hospital training receives a yellow bandanna and an Overlake photo ID badge.



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