Last Update: 11/11/2013 11:35:00 AM
Trained therapy dogs bring joy to hospital patients
Marge Stiller and her standard poodle, Solomon, a trained therapy dog, entered the hospital room.
"I knew he was terminal as soon as I saw him," she said of the patient.
But the patient had an affinity for poodles, and the visit evoked a positive response from the man.
"His son said, 'I haven't heard my father speak in two weeks or smile in two weeks,' " Stiller said.
The man died two days later.
When Stiller, 75, of Spring Township retired 20 years ago, she had an idea as to how she wanted to devote some of her free time.
"I wanted to do something that would benefit the elderly, and especially those in nursing homes," Stiller said. "Somehow I heard about dog therapy, so I went through the channels and contacted Therapy Dogs Inc. in Cheyenne, Wyo."
After getting her dog tested and certified, Stiller, who has four dogs, set out as a volunteer visiting various locations three to four times a week. She is now the coordinator of Berks County Therapy Dogs, the chapter she started.
"Our main focus is getting to see the people who are in the hospital or are in nursing homes, residential care facilities, to have them be able to interact with the dogs," Stiller said.
She described the impact the dogs can have on patients.
"I have seen unbelievable things," she said. "Alzheimer's clients who haven't talked to anyone in weeks will talk to the dogs. They can actually calm down a client who is mentally disturbed."
In many cases, those in residential care facilities had to give up an animal prior to moving in.
"That was hard on them," she said. "One day a woman told me that losing her husband was hard, but losing her dog gave her no reason to get up in the morning."
Therapy dogs bring some tranquility to the atmosphere.
"They are just very calming, loving, peaceful, it's something that we can give to a lot of the residents," Stiller said. "They are not going to be asking any questions or causing any problems."
In the case of patients undergoing chemotherapy, Stiller said the dogs serve as a distraction.
"They look so forward to seeing the dogs," she said. "We are basically seeing the same people (weekly), and they get to know these dogs."
Lorah Hopkins of Oley Township, who has attended the St. Joseph Medical Center cancer treatment area with two of her family members who were undergoing chemotherapy, has also seen the positive effects the dogs have on patients.
"You see the patients' eyes just light up when the dogs come in," Hopkins said.
Most of Stiller's visits to hospitals are routine weekly visits. Others are special requests.
"We do get calls from St. Joe's that a patient is going to be passing away and would like a certain type of dog," she said.
Stiller started the dog therapy program at St. Joseph five years ago. Before that, didn't even let dogs into the hospital. With 25 dogs in the program, there are typically dogs visiting the hospital daily, seven days a week during normal visiting hours.
"I also helped start Reading Hospital's program years ago," she said.
When asked what the biggest perks are for her of being a dog therapy owner, Stiller, shared some words exchanged in a recent conversation with her dog therapy partner, Karen McGavin of Alsace Township.
"It is a sense of joy and just to be able to provide some kind of happiness to someone in need," Stiller said. "It is something that I can share with them."
Being a volunteer for 20 years hasn't dampened the impact the experience has on her.
"I am still finding so much joy in seeing people smile and be happy to see him and pet him and kiss him," she said, referring to Solomon. "It is a happiness, and it has made me a better person."
Contact Courtney H. Diener-Stokes: firstname.lastname@example.org.