Yampa Valley Medical Center patient James Ellis, of Milner, visits Friday with Panda, a Chihuahua belonging to Karen Covillo, who volunteers her three dogs for the hospital's Heeling Friends program. The visit brought smiles to Ellis, who shattered his legs after falling from his roof Feb. 8.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Yampa Valley Medical Center patient James Ellis, of Milner, visits Friday with Panda, a Chihuahua belonging to Karen Covillo, who volunteers her three dogs for the hospital's Heeling Friends program. The visit brought smiles to Ellis, who shattered his legs after falling from his roof Feb. 8.

Therapy dogs calm hospital patients in volunteer program

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Sports med patient Allison Holt holds Panda's paws Friday at the hospital. Heeling Friends volunteer Karen Covillo makes sure that her dog is wearing a nice outfit and her nails are painted with dog nail polish.

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Heeling Friends volunteer Karen Covillo, left, lets Sports Med patient Allison Holt visit with Panda, a Chihuahua, on Friday at the hospital.

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Name tags for Heeling Friends volunteer Karen Covillo and her Chihuahua, Panda, hang from Panda's harness.

Get involved

Heeling Friends hosts an informational meeting about recruitment and training from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Strawberry Park Elementary School. Interested pet owners also need to be available for training and evaluation meetings March 4, 15 and 29.

Heeling Friends pet-and-owner teams must be available to visit the Yampa Valley Medical Center at least twice a month and are required to commit to the program for two years. There are some training costs for the program, and participating dogs must be at least 1 year old. For more information, call Lynette Weaver at 871-0021 or visit the Heeling Friends Web site at Heeling Friends.

Lifting one of her three Chihuahuas out of its carrying pouch, Heeling Friends pet owner Karen Covillo asked a pink-sweater clad Panda whether she was ready to work.

"Are you ready for some action, Panda?" Covillo said, looking into the chihuahua's calm eyes before setting it on the floor to skitter into the Sports Medicine Center at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Covillo's three Chihuahuas - Panda, Sydnie and Onzlow - make up one of 19 pet-and-owner teams in the Heeling Friends program, a volunteer-based operation that recruits well-trained animals and owners to visit patients at YVMC and Doak Walker Care Center.

After a brief Friday morning visit to the patients doing physical therapy in SportsMed, Covillo and Panda moved on to the patient care unit, dropping in on Routt County native James Ellis.

Panda curled up in Ellis' lap and lightly pawed at his hand in the minutes when he stopped petting her. As she does with patients at the Doak and in the YVMC emergency room, Panda will take attention from - and give it back to - anyone she meets.

"She's born to do this. She loves the one she's with," Covillo said. "The dog has to want to go with everybody and anybody."

Recruitment starts soon

Going into its 10th year, Heeling Friends is looking for new pet-and-owner teams. Lynette Weaver, the program's director, said dogs should be mild-mannered and well trained.

"The No. 1 thing I think we look for in dogs and in new teams is really friendly dogs who are drawn to people more than they are to other dogs," Weaver said. Interested pet owners are invited to an informational meeting from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Strawberry Park Elementary School. Training and evaluation meetings for a new class of Heeling Friends teams are March 4, 15 and 29.

Teams must make a two-year commitment to the program and are required to visit the hospital at least twice a month.

"It's kind of a long process, and you obviously need to be dedicated and have the time to do this," Weaver said about the selection and training process.

In addition to visiting hospital patients, some Heeling Friends teams make weekly rounds at Strawberry Park Elementary School and Christian Heritage School. The Reading Education Assistance Dogs - or READ - program started with the Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Therapy Animals. Barbara Clark, who directs the Steamboat version of READ, said the visits take away some of the pressure of reading aloud.

"A dog is not very critical if you stumble or have to sound out the words, and reading to a dog makes reading fun and relieves the stress on the kids," Clark said. "You get less anxious when you read to a dog."

'It's very rewarding'

Clark makes monthly visits to the tonsil unit at YVMC, bringing her Bernese mountain dog, Vernors, to comfort children who have had their tonsils removed.

Vernors - who travels with his own doctor's bag, complete with a stethoscope - helps the children relax in what might be a stressful situation, Clark said.

"They love it. They start smiling, and they love to watch Vernors do his tricks," Clark said. "It just relaxes them from being in a strange environment."

In 2008, Heeling Friends conducted 363 patient visits at YVMC, with 19 teams spending 353 hours at the hospital and about 100 hours at Doak Walker Care Center. Add the READ program's 100 in-school hours to the mix, and Heeling Friends teams spent more than 550 hours providing canine companions to people in Steamboat Springs.

Clark said the time commitment required to join the program pays off with each visit to a hospital patient or elementary school student.

"It's very rewarding from a personal standpoint," she said. "You can see how people respond to therapy dogs and relax. It's rewarding to see how you can make a difference in someone's day."

- To reach Margaret Hair, call 871-4204

or e-mail mhair@steamboatpilot.com

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