The power of pet therapy

Written by Natalie Betz

Our furry friends can have a profound effect on our emotional state. Sue Braverman’s own dog, Maggie, helped her cope with losing another pet she loved. And after learning about the benefits of pet therapy, Braverman decided to get involved.

For eight years Sue Braverman has volunteered her time with Maggie, her tri-color English Setter, at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, including UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

“When we adopted Maggie from a shelter, she was a form of therapy for my family and me after we lost our previous dog,” she says. “Maggie is such a sweetheart. My kids used to fight over whose room Maggie would sleep in every night.”

Maggie was so good with her kids that Braverman knew she would thrive as a therapy dog. They took a two-day pet therapy class with Pet Partners to register Maggie and learn more about the program.

Maggie needed to pass several evaluations, such as:

  • Walking on a leash
  • Responding to commands
  • Testing her temperament
  • Testing her patience in a crowd
  • Overcoming obstacles such as people walking in a wheel chair or walker

Maggie is very sociable, so the first time she took the class, she didn’t pass the test of remaining calm around the neutral dog. She wanted to play with the other dog. As a result, she had to train Maggie to remain calm when seeing another animal before retaking the class. Maggie has passed every test she’s taken since then.

“She has to be retested every two years, and has always received the highest score,” Braverman says.

The pair began volunteering at elementary schools for the R.E.A.D. program: Reading Education Assistance Dogs. The kids would read to Maggie, which helped keep calm and comfortable while practicing their reading.

“There’s a lot pressure reading to an adult who is constantly correcting you, but dogs just sit and listen,” Braverman says.

However, Braverman always knew she wanted to come to UI Hospitals & Clinics. After volunteering at the elementary school for two years, she and Maggie were certified by the Furry Friends Program—the UI Hospitals & Clinics family pet and certified dog visitation program. This allowed them to meet with the patients in recreational services and in physical therapy.

Currently, the duo visits four inpatient units twice a week for two hours at a time. They volunteer at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital, as well as the UI Hospitals & Clinics adult cancer unit, cardiac unit, and bone marrow transplant unit. Maggie stays with one patient for 10 to 20 minutes, and she gets many special request visits after people meet her.

“Maggie connects so well with each patient,” Braverman says. “She does not lick them, but instead, she sniffs them, almost as if she’s getting to know them by their scent.”

Many times, Maggie sleeps on patients’ beds with them, where they snuggle together. If she can’t go on their bed, she’ll sit next to them on a chair where they can pet her, or simply be near her. For physical therapy patients, Braverman brings an extra leash so patients can walk Maggie around the hospital as part of their therapy.

Many patients talk about their own pets after meeting Maggie, which can make them emotional, but they say it’s nice to have contact with Maggie while in the hospital, she explains.

One time that stands out to Braverman was when they were visiting patients in the burn unit. There was a man who the nurses warned was having a particularly bad week. She was a little nervous, but Maggie settled into his bed, so the man could pet her and they snuggled while he napped.

“When we returned the next week, he was pleasant and the nurses said it was directly after meeting Maggie,” she says. “As rewarding as it is for me, it’s even nicer to bring these patients a sense of normalcy to their lives.”

“I’ve learned dogs have a sixth sense. They can attune to human emotions and aliments. Maggie knows to be gentle with patients, but she also knows how to specifically comfort others,” Braverman says. “Once there was a patient with a stomachache and without prodding, she gently rested her head on the patient’s stomach, which is not something she normally does. It was truly amazing.”

After 10 years of volunteering, Braverman and Maggie are retiring this year. Braverman expressed how much she is going to miss volunteering. Maggie, however, is 13, so it’s time for her to unwind in her old age. The family adopted a new dog, but she isn’t as patient and calm as Maggie, she explains.

“I always knew how much people liked dogs, but now I know how much people love them and what an impact they have on our world,” she says. “I’ve received countless thank-yous. I wish I could recount every story and life that Maggie has touched in the last 10 years.”

Learn more

To learn more about the Furry Friends Program and how to volunteer with your own dog, visit uihc.org/furry-friends.

 

4 comments

  1. Thank you, Sue and Maggie, for your commitment to our patients! I always looked forward to the days you would volunteer so I could see both of you when I worked in the Volunteer office and also get some pet therapy! Congratulations on your “retirement” and thank you for all of your hard work!

  2. Thanks to you and Maggie for brightening so many peoples day, I’m a dog lover myself and I know how much it means to be around the furry friends.

  3. I know that pets can make a difference with patients. It would be great if you let other pet therapy organizations work in the hospital rather than limiting it to one organization. That way you can get more therapy animals to the patients

  4. Maggie has been coming to my unit 4jp since I started there 5 years ago. She doesn’t only brighten the patients days, but we also look forward to her visits. We will miss you and your sweet self Maggie!

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