Dog therapy returns to Grey Nuns hospital

Stephanie Prien loves dogs of any kind.

“I’ve always had dogs all my life. I’ve gone from shepherds to Rottweilers to Yorki-Poos to wiener dogs to Malteses and mutts. I’ve had them all and loved every one of them just the same.”

As a regular visitor to the Grey Nuns Community Hospital, Stephanie is grateful to be greeted at the entrance by Blu, a miniature Australian shepherd and pet therapy volunteer.

“He’s an absolutely beautiful-looking animal, very calm,” says Stephanie. “I think it cheers you up a little bit. My husband is dying of cancer and to be able to meet somebody both going in and out, it’s nice.”

Blu recently returned to the hospital after the pet therapy program had to be halted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, Blu and his handler, Michelle Aberant, regularly visited patients on the fifth floor and in the emergency department. Now they’re stationed outside the front entrance to interact with visitors, patients or staff who stop by.

Michelle says Blu has adjusted well to his return to work.

“For the first eight months, he didn’t see anybody outside of our immediate family — just me and my husband and his dog sibling. Then he’d visit with all the seniors walking on the walking trail behind our house, and he got right into loving to do that again. So it was really natural for him to get back into pet therapy. He was right into it again.”

Volunteer services manager Teresa Lucier says there are two teams participating in dog therapy at the Grey Nuns hospital: Blu and Michelle and golden retriever Abbe with her handler, Ernie Tremblay. Both teams are members of the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta. They plan to continue to do outdoor visits as long as the weather permits and until volunteers are allowed back on the units.

“It brings back a little bit of normal because the dogs were here pre-COVID-19 and now people can see the dogs again — in a different format, but they’re still here. It puts a smile on people’s faces when they come in. It makes people feel a bit of relief from the stress and anxiety of coming to the hospital. Before they go into the hospital or when they come out, they can have that little bit of pet therapy and enjoy being around one of our furry friends.”

As part of COVID-19 precautions, participants are masked and screened and asked to sanitize their hands before and after petting the dogs. Michelle says Blu is used to being around masks and hand sanitizer from his experience working in the intensive care unit. And even though it’s a different environment, the benefits of pet therapy remain.

“It’s a stress buster. It’s just normal. It’s a normal thing to be able to pet a dog. Even if they have to wear a mask and hand sanitize, they just get to pet the dog. I think that part of it brings some sort of stress relief to a stressful situation.”

Michelle says studies show that pet therapy benefits include lowered blood pressure and heart rate and improved sleep. Additionally, dogs can detect and help relieve stress, she says.

“The dogs are very intuitive. They know that’s happening, and they’ll often go and just snuggle in for a couple of minutes and release that little bit of stress, even if it’s only for five minutes.”

Dave and Ann Latta enjoy a few minutes with Blu and Michelle.

Dog lover Dave Latta has been in the hospital for more than five months, and he enjoyed his recent outdoor visit with Blu.

“Even two seconds is worth it,” says Dave. “Seriously, it makes you feel calm. It’s nice to have that contact again. Especially if you’re a pet owner or lover of pets, it’s just nice.”

As Blu rests in the shade between visitors, Michelle says they’re both glad to be back helping patients again.

“He’s loving life,” says Michelle. “He’s just happy to be working again. He’s tired when he gets home, which is good. It’s been good for both of us.” 

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