Call Lynette Weaver at 871-0021 for more information about applying to be a member of the Heeling Friends team.
Steamboat Springs It took only a minute Tuesday before the elderly Yampa Valley Medical Center patient opened up and began to talk. Dogs like Kandu, a two-legged Jack Russell terrier mix, can have that effect on people.
"These dogs are able to motivate people who can't complete sentences or who don't speak much at all," said Christine McKelvie, public relations director for the hospital. "There is such a comfort offered there, and that unconditional love they recognize."
Kandu is part of Heeling Friends, a group of pets and their owners that makes daily visits to the hospital to provide companionship for patients and others. Tuesday was Kandu's fifth visit to the hospital with his owner, Ken Rogers, who rescued him after Kandu's previous owner had taken him to a veterinarian to be euthanized.
Kandu is particularly special because he was born without his front two legs.
"The other owners got tired of dealing with him," Rogers said. "The Evergreen Animal Protection League came to rescue him, and we saw a piece on Channel 4 News in Denver and submitted an application to adopt him."
About 150 people sent essays to the TV station for the chance to adopt the 3-year-old dog. Rogers, an Oak Creek resident, was chosen as the winner.
"I think that part of us getting him was because we planned to get him involved in Heeling Friends," Rogers said. "And we feel very privileged to be part of his life."
Rogers and his wife, Melissa, also have a black Labrador retriever named Bob that has been part of the Heeling Friends program for three years. The program is looking for new pet/owner teams. Becoming a Heeling Friends team takes about three months from the time you apply to the time you start making hospital visits.
"The dogs take a skills test, obedience command and aptitude test, and we test them on their reaction to sudden movements, loud noises, people yelling and crash carts falling to the ground," said Lynette Weaver, executive director of Heeling Friends. "The dogs have to pass within a certain number range."
The dogs or cats also have to be very friendly, low-key, non-assertive, patient and quiet.
"And the handlers have to be in control of them all the time," Weaver said. "Handlers have to go through two tests scored on how they handle their dogs in various scenarios and crisis situations, and they have to have strong people skills."
Handlers also are responsible for the fees associated with the training and application process. Those fees are for a workbook, a workshop and certification and registration fees through the Delta Society, including liability insurance. It totals about $100. The Delta Society provides education and programs throughout the country for certified pet therapy teams. The certification is valid for two years at any facility in the country that recognizes the program.
Once part of Heeling Friends, pet owners must make a two-year commitment that requires two visits a month to the hospital.
"Sometimes the teams can't even get out of the waiting room because they practically get mauled," Weaver said. "The staff absolutely loves them, as well, because they may be having a stressful day and say, 'Oh, I need a dog fix.'"
On Tuesday, Kandu could barely make it down the hallway during his visit because almost every staff member, visitor and patient stopped to pet him.
Rogers said Kandu loves the linoleum floors at the hospital because he is able to move around easily. After he was rescued, Marin Kauffman, a man who makes prosthetics for people as a career and for pets as a hobby, designed a three-wheeled cart for Kandu.
"He also has a mono-ski for the winter," Rogers said. "But he thinks he's normal, of course."
And it's not just hospital staff, visitors and patients who look forward to appearances by dogs like Kandu - the pets are just as enthusiastic.
"He sees the front door of the hospital and just lights up," Rogers said about Kandu. "He's got such a great spirit, it's just infectious."
Like all Heeling Friends teams, Rogers and Kandu only enter hospital rooms for which staff and patients have OK'd the visit. Before entering a room, Rogers asks the patient if he or she is ready for the visit and if they are allergic to dogs. Once in the room, Rogers lays a clean sheet on the bed and lets Kandu do his magic.
"Once we get him calmed down for a minute, he just hangs out," Rogers said. "And if he's in your bed, he'll be spooning you."
Conversations typically center on Kandu, and patients often share stories about their pets.
"Dogs are the icebreaker," Weaver said. "Once they see the dogs, they start conversation."
Heeling Friends have been lighting up the faces of hospital and Doak Walker Care Center patients since 1998. The organization recently received a gift of $1,742 from the Healthcare Foundation for the Yampa Valley for the work it does in the community.
"It is just a phenomenal program and has been a success from the first day," McKelvie said. "And it's a very careful and respectful program."