There's something about a dog's smile. It can break through some of the deepest depression and loneliness.
Lynette Weaver, director of Heeling Friends Pet Visitation Program, has seen it firsthand. She and 18 other volunteers take turns bringing their dogs into the hospital, to Horizons and into Doak Walker Care Center.
"There are people who don't talk anymore or touch other people, like Alzheimer's patients," Weaver said. "But a dog will walk into their room and their eyes will open and they'll talk when they haven't talked in years."
Studies have shown that pets have a calming effect on people. "That's why a lot of older people will get a pet -- just to have a have someone to talk to, someone to hug," Weaver said. "They can connect with an animal even though they can't connect with people anymore."
The Heeling Friends program started in 1999 when three women, including Weaver, and their three dogs started visiting patients at the old hospital on Park Street.
By the time Yampa Valley Medical Center opened in its new location, the program had grown to as many as 30 dog-owner teams.
Since then, volunteer numbers have dropped to 18 dogs.
This week, Heeling Friends is holding a recruitment drive for new dog-owner teams from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday.
Heeling Friends asks for a two-year commitment from volunteers. Owners are asked to visit patients at the hospital twice a month.
"It's actually tough to get people to do it," Weaver said. "The dog gets sick or there is a job transfer."
Volunteer turnover is high.
She warns potential volunteers that Heeling Friends, though rewarding, is not for everyone.
"People have this great idea of doing something worthwhile in the community with their dog," she said. "But then they get into the hospital and find that they aren't comfortable."
The dogs and owners are partners in the visiting experience, and it can be tough for people who do not have the social skills to keep a conversation going with strangers.
Dogs, who are comfortable in other environments, may be intimidated by hospitals -- the smells and the equipment can be overwhelming.
"It can freeze a dog," Weaver said. "Their paws get sweaty or they start to drool.
"Unfortunately, you don't know until you get in there."
Which is why potential dog and owner teams are put through a long series of tests before they are allowed into the program.
During practice sessions, dogs are exposed to walkers, loud noises, yelling and screaming (something they might experience at Doak Walker), wheelchairs and having a lot of people crowding around their faces.
Older dogs, between the ages of 4 and 8, tend to be best suited for Heeling Friends visitation, Weaver said.
Heeling Friends is looking for friendly, approachable dogs that are low key. Dogs should respond to obedience commands such as "sit," "down," "stay," "come" and should be able to walk on a loose lead.
At Monday's and Wednesday's meetings, dogs will be evaluated on their responses to loud and sudden movements, to crowding in the face and being bumped by large pieces of equipment.
Minimal fees will be charged for each battery of tests, but financial help is available.
The dogs help more than the patients when they come to visit.
"Word gets out almost immediately that there is a dog in the hospital and everyone comes out to see it," Weaver said. Seeing a dog provides relief for stressed medical staff and families of patients.
"A doctor will come out and say, 'I've had a really stressful day. I need a dog fix,'" Weaver said. "The whole experience is really neat. You're only supposed to visit for an hour, but everyone wants to see the dog. It's hard to get out in under two hours."
In the past month, Heeling Friends has been allowed to visit chemotherapy patients.
"This is really a special privilege and an honor for us," Weaver said. Only three dogs were qualified to visit the chemotherapy ward because the patients are susceptible to infection.
"I had no idea this program would grow to this size," she said.
For more information about Heeling Friends, call Lynette Weaver at 871-0021.
-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210
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