Bruce and Terry Hinde hold their pet schnauzers Benji, left, and Dori. The dogs are part of the Yampa Valley Medical Center’s  Heeling Friends program through which dogs visit patients at the medical center.

Photo by John F. Russell

Bruce and Terry Hinde hold their pet schnauzers Benji, left, and Dori. The dogs are part of the Yampa Valley Medical Center’s Heeling Friends program through which dogs visit patients at the medical center.

Heeling Friends in Steamboat seeks volunteers

Spring recruitment for pet therapy program starts at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

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Heeling Friends spring recruitment schedule

■ 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday: Informational meeting at Strawberry Park Elementary School (pet handlers only)

■ 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday: Training at Strawberry Park Elementary (pet handlers and pets)

■ April 11: Daylong workshop for pet handlers

■ April 18: Pet handler and pet evaluation

Heeling Friends pets need to be at least 1 year old and know basic obedience commands. Heeling Friends teams are required to make a two-year commitment to volunteer at least twice a month.

Anyone interested in participating in the spring recruitment must register with Heeling Friends Executive Director Lynette Weaver by Saturday. Call 871-0021 to register. Learn more about the program at this site.

— Benji has been a Heeling Friends volunteer for two years.

A calm schnauzer mix who his owners guess is about 6 or 7 years old, Benji is one of about 20 Heeling Friends dogs who make at least two trips each month to Yampa Valley Medical Center to add some light to the hospital’s rooms.

Terry and Bruce Hinde said they registered themselves and Benji in the Heeling Friends program as a chance to give back to the community with their dogs. Their other dog, a miniature schnauzer rescue dog named Dori, got into the program last year.

With Benji and Dori, the Hindes spent about 80 hours volunteering with the Heeling Friends pet therapy program last year, Heeling Friends Executive Director Lynette Weaver said. In addition to hospital visits, Heeling Friends teams also can listen to children read at local elementary schools as part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program.

The pet therapy program, which is going into its 11th year and offered services to 667 hospital patients in 2009, is looking for recruits.

An informational meeting about Heeling Friends is from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Strawberry Park Elementary School. Training sessions are at the same time Wednesday and Thursday. An all-day training session is April 11, and a final evaluation is April 18. Interested teams must be present at all the recruitment events, Weaver said. Anyone interested needs to register with Weaver by Saturday.

Dogs need to be at least 1 year old and know all their basic commands, Weaver said. Teams are required to commit to the program for two years, with hospital teams making at least two visits a month and R.E.A.D. program participants visiting local elementary schools for at least 30 minutes once a week. The average yearly commitment is 40 to 50 hours, Weaver said. Heeling Friends is especially interested in adding more teams to the R.E.A.D. program, she said.

Low-key, people-friendly dogs are the best fit for Heeling Friends, Weaver said. The current group of 23 pet-and-owner teams includes dogs of all sizes; cats also have participated in the program.

On a typical hospital visit, Terry or Bruce checks in with Dori or Benji — both dogs have their own YVMC volunteer badges — and stops by the emergency room waiting room. They make the rounds to the main hospital lobby, patient rooms, physical therapy rooms and the Doak Walker Care Center, offering a break for patients, visitors and staff. It can be work, but it always pays off, Terry Hinde said.

“I can’t think of a time when I’ve gone and I haven’t thought, ‘I’m glad I did that,’” she said.

At training, dogs will be given tests to make sure they can handle new people, loud noises and potentially stressful situations. Dogs need to stay calm when a metal pan hits the floor, and they need to stay put when a tennis ball on the bottom of a walking aid passes by, Terry Hinde said.

Along with the Hindes, two Heeling Friends teams accounted for many of the almost 500 volunteer hours the program put out in 2009, Weaver said. Karen Covillo and her Chihuahuas volunteered 127 hours, and Cathy Shryock and her dogs volunteered 107 hours, she said.

“If you’re willing to make the commitment, oh my gosh, you reap the benefit tenfold. … When these dogs walk into a patient’s room, most of them, their faces just light up,” Weaver said.

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