“Pet therapy is a way for dogs to interact with patients and help them to relieve tensions and forget their pains,” says Roxann Ritchie, a volunteer with Lutheran Medical Center’s pet therapy program.
“There might be a person who’s never smiled and hadn’t been talking, but then the dog comes in, and the patient starts smiling and talking, and they’re laughing and giggling. The patient lights up and forgets their troubles for a while. It’s hard to explain… it’s beautiful.”
Ritchie and her greyhound Penny are one team of about 20 that volunteer in LMC’s pet therapy program.
Penny is deaf, but that doesn’t prevent her from doing her job.
“Penny knows some hand signs and particularly likes a thumbs-up, which means she’s a good girl,” says Ritchie, who believes they share a mental and emotional connection. “We communicate through love. I talk to her in her ear. When she ‘speaks’ to me, I feel proud, I feel good.”
Ritchie tells of Penny’s journey to become a pet therapy dog – a remarkable story. She said that every so often her greyhound group visits other countries to bring back greyhounds to shelters in this country. The president of her group saw Penny at one of those shelters, “sitting in a corner, shivering and crying. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with her because she was deaf.
“Penny lost her hearing while living with a family in Spain. One day, the family left and soon afterward there was a big explosion, and she lost her hearing because of it.
“The president called me and asked if I would like to adopt her, and I said, ‘Sure.’ Penny was terrified at first, and it took me about three months to get to know her. For about two years, I took her everywhere I went. Then a year ago in January, she became a pet therapy dog.
“The vet says her senses are very in-tune. Penny watches and feels all the vibrations around her,” and makes different sounds to let Ritchie know if she’s hungry or needs a bathroom break. “I’ve had Penny for going on four years. Our bond gets stronger and stronger all the time.”
Although pet therapy dogs can positively impact the lives of many patients, not everyone wants to see an animal.
“We honor that,” said Ritchie. “Some people are afraid because they may have been bitten by a dog, some are allergic to dogs and others just might not care about animals.”
According to Healthline.com, “Petting an animal can cause your brain to release chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals counteract your body’s reaction to pain by causing a sense of pleasure or well-being.”
“Some patients are withdrawn, and seeing and touching a dog helps bring them out,” Ritchie said. She related a visit to a patient in physical therapy during which the patient began moving her hands when Penny approached her. The therapist said, ‘Wow, she hasn’t done that for a while.’
“When you see that kind of response, you realize how important the program is. That’s why I worked so hard with Penny, to get her into the program.”
Additional information obtained from Ritchie states that staff, patients and guests have commented that, even on their hardest day dealing with an illness or that of a loved one, patients are comforted and encouraged when they see, touch and spend time with our furry ones.
All participating pet therapy teams are taught and certified at Lutheran.
“The training and orientation is done right here at the hospital and West Pines, which is a drug and alcohol facility, and Collier Hospice,” Ritchie said, “so that [teams] become comfortable in all of these facilities. When Penny started, she went through two vet screenings to be sure she could be part of the program. After she passed two training tests, she received her scarf and badge.”
LMC’s Pet Therapy program had its beginning in 1989 when a Lutheran nurse and her dog Andre began visiting patients. Lutheran’s pet therapy program was modeled after one at Children’s Hospital. Until the mid-1990s, Lutheran and Children’s had the only pet therapy programs in Colorado.
Ritchie is retired, having enjoyed a 38-year career teaching first grade at Denver elementary schools Fairview and Bryant-Webster. Her interest in the dog therapy program grew out of a visit to her mother-in-law who was having heart surgery at Lutheran, 15 years ago.
“I was sitting in the waiting room when a dog and her attendant came up to me. When the dog put her head in my lap, I said, ‘When I adopt my first greyhound, she will be in the program.
“I adopted Lily, whom I had met at a racetrack, and she entered the pet therapy program. She had five puppies, and I adopted two of them, and they became part of the program.”
Ritchie and Penny now volunteer at Lutheran several days a week.
Every patient who Penny visits gets her business card that states her hobbies, which include visiting staff and patients at LMC, going on long walks, car rides and play dates; favorite places like the hospital, Petco and Mom’s bed; and dislikes: being left alone and taking a bath! Penny’s best friend is Bindee, a chihuahua, and sometimes they have a lunch date in the volunteer center. Penny says, “I’m on the go all the time.”