TEWKSBURY, Mass. — It’s Thursday morning at Tewksbury State Hospital, and patients are buzzing with excitement, already starting to line up.
Patients will sit and wait in the hallways, so as to catch a glimpse of one of their most cherished visitors, who has developed somewhat of a cult following at the hospital: Tucker, a little white cockapoo with floppy ears, has arrived to do “pet therapy,” a gig he typically does once a week.
And he’s so small and adorable that people can’t help but stand up and take notice when he struts down the hospital corridors.
“They get really excited,” said Nancy Marshall, therapy recreation coordinator for the hospital. “They wait for the dogs. They know the day and time they come. And they wait nearby and say excitedly, ‘This is the day that Tucker is going to come down the hall.”’
After making his way down the hallway, the pooch will go room to room visiting some 20 patients. And Tucker will sit on their laps, perform tricks for them and gaze adoringly into the eyes of patients who pet and nuzzle him. In return, Tucker gives them unconditional love. Other times, the dogs will just sit quietly with a patient, who will just pat them and kiss them and love them.
At the unit where Tucker visits, the pooch is considered by patients as “their pet,” too. And some even post little photos of him close to their bedsides.
Marshall said she started the hospital’s pet-therapy program in June 2009, after reading studies that touted the positive benefits that pets have on patients. They lower patients’ blood pressure, even prodding patients to become more active — giving them something positive to look forward to every week.
“They tend to have a very settling and calming effect,” said Liz Cleaves, a trainer and owner of Auntie Dog, a dog training and day care business in Tewksbury. She has volunteered her dogs for pet therapy since the hospital program started. Her dogs, a Doberman pinscher named Panzer de Grosseretterhund, a German shepherd dubbed Jaeger von Olympia, and a Boston terrier named Newman von Tude, volunteer on a rotating basis every Wednesday afternoon. There’s simply something to be said about “that canine connection,” she said.
People who don’t want to walk or have mobility issues will walk the dog or ride in their wheelchairs right next to it. Or they’ll play catch, throwing a white plastic dumbbell back and forth, inviting the dogs to fetch.
And patients won’t even realize they are doing occupational therapy, exercising their arms and hands, Cleaves said. “They just think they are playing with the dog.”
Her decision to volunteer her dogs for pet therapy stems from a memory from the 1970s, when her grandmother was in a nursing home. “I went to visit her one day,” Cleaves recalled, “and she had a stuffed animal, and she said, ‘Oh, I wish this dog were real.’”
That experience struck Cleaves, making her realize how saddened she’d be, as a dog lover, if she couldn’t interact with animals on a daily basis when she got older.
“I just hope someone will bring their dog to see me when I get older,” she said. “If you have grown up in a home with animals, you just can’t imagine how delightful it is to see this bundle of fur come through your door.”
Cleaves looked into pet-therapy training programs several years ago and found a workshop, which costs $35, run by the nonprofit Dog B.O.N.E.S. Therapy Dogs of Massachusetts, which trains dogs and their owners to serve as pet therapy teams and help to place them in volunteer positions. Annual membership to the organization is $25.
Since that time, she volunteered her dogs at Tewksbury Hospital and in the past months started volunteering her dogs with the elderly at an assisted-living facility, Emeritus of Tewksbury, which changed its name from the Pines of Tewksbury in May.
“Therapy dogs definitely have to have a certain personality,” Cleaves said. In addition to being friendly and good-natured, “they have to be able to get used to the hospital setting — the noises, the smells and the equipment that goes by.”
The stories that come out of the interaction with patients are “beautiful,” Marshall said. “And that’s why we like having the dogs here.”
Patients just seem to open up around the dogs, even those who are normally withdrawn. One patient, who was shy about socializing, typically staying cooped up in his room to watch TV, decided to venture outside his room to play with the dog. And another patient walks the dog in her wheelchair down the hospital’s hallways.
Beth Taylor, memory-care director for Emeritus at Tewksbury, has been using pet therapy for several months.
“Our residents are very responsive to the Big Three: music, babies and animals,” she said.
“I have found the elderly population has an inexplicable connection to animals,” she said. “Animals just make them feel good. It’s something for them to focus their attention on, and our residents love anything that needs to be nurtured.”
Most patients refer to Cleaves’ dog, Panzer, as “Mr. P,” and Cleaves said she will never forget how on the third visit to the Tewksbury Hospital, “we got on the floor and all of sudden, we heard a woman yell, ‘P.’
“She was coming down on her electric wheelchair, and she had not shown that kind of enthusiasm before,” she said.
Cleaves said that she feels the work that her dogs do is “important work,” providing emotional support and love to those who need it. And that’s why she has convinced many other dogs and pet owners she has worked with to sign up for the program.
Christine Mechalides of Tyngsboro is one of her disciples. She decided to volunteer her canine, Charlie, a black and tan Doberman, at Tewksbury Hospital.
Charlie was rescued from a shelter more than two years ago.
“And it’s been such a nice journey for us to take — coming from a dog that had no home — to a dog that just gives all this joy to others,” she said.
With one ear up and one down, he just has a way of turning his head when you are talking to him, like he’s focusing only on you. And people just want to tell him their stories, she said.
And he just loves being touched and patted.
“If he sees a wheelchair, now, he just wants to be there,” sidling right next to the person so he can place his head on their lap, she said.
And to have a front-row seat to those sort of moments is simply amazing, she said.
“It’s well worth the effort to volunteer,” Mechalides said. “You just can’t buy that kind of enjoyment.”