Quince pushes his wet nose into a patient’s room at Albuquerque’s Heart Hospital. Valerie Peyton is on her back recovering from a heart attack. She looks tired, battered. Quince catches Petyon’s eye. Color returns to her cheeks. A smile breaks across her face.
Valerie drops a hand and Quince steps forward. One hundred eight pounds of rottweiler move to her bed. His black and brown head is twice the size of Peyton’s. He wears a necktie and boxer shorts with red and green chiles.
“He’s so cute!” Valerie giggles as Quince’s nose dampens her dangling hand. “I love those shorts. They’re awesome.”
Quince’s owner, Dede Brownstein, follows the muscular rotty. The day’s other pet therapy volunteers join her. Amy Orr brings her rottweiler, a female name Dakota. Bonnie Hughes has the veteran of the team, a boxer named Maggie who “all but grew up in this hospital,” says Hughes.
These women visit patients every week. At their own expense, they’ve trained and registered their dogs through Therapy Dogs, Inc. Headquartered in Cheyenne, Wyo., Therapy Dogs supports a national network of volunteers “willing to share their special animals in order to bring happiness and cheer to people, young and old alike.”
Happiness and cheer are being dispensed in healthy doses this day. In the hospital’s lobby, weary staff stopped to pet the dogs. I saw highly trained heart doctors bending down to talk to Maggie, who seems to be the hospital’s animal mascot. When they stood to return to the work of facing down death, they seemed refreshed, lighter on their feet.
Our next stop was the waiting room. About 30 people were camped out, completing tedious forms or hanging on news of how loved ones were faring in surgery. When Quince, Dakota and Maggie trundled in, it was as though someone had turned up the lights. The dogs performed tricks, placed warm paws in hands, and offered bellies and ears for scratches. Worried people stepped out of themselves to ask about the dogs and share stories of their own pets.
“The dogs know they’ve got a job to do.”
We moved upstairs to the patient wards and checked the nurse’s station to ask who might appreciate some dog therapy today. We couldn’t move until the nurses were done getting their own dose of canine cure.
“Hiya, babe! Hiya, pretty!” “Hey there, handsome fella!” “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie May!”
A male nurse rolls Maggie over for a belly rub. “No, I don’t like dogs too much,” he says, then speaks playful gibberish to the boxer.
“We’ve been here during emergencies,” said Dede Brownstein, “when they swing into action.”
Life flows and ebbs around us. Any minute these wonderworkers might have to rush into a room to try for a miracle or face the truth that all their skills and tools can’t save somebody’s mother or father, husband or wife, son or daughter. They bear a heavy burden. But at this moment, it seems the only weight they feel is adoring dogs leaning against their legs.
Brownstein spends two or three days a week at this. Quince is her third therapy dog. Her first, Einstein, another rotty, pulled kids on a cart at UNM’s Children’s Hospital. She also takes her dogs into the Juvenile Detention Center and works with special education students at Bosque Elementary School and Rio Grande High School.
Brownstein’s second therapy dog, an Australian shepherd named Glider, was an “active therapy” dog. Physical therapists used him to play fetch with patients suffering limited mobility. Glider also engaged special education students who didn’t play well with humans.
“Dogs do connect you,” says Hughes. “They bring you back to Earth and remind you there are good things to be happy about.”
In a room isolated at the end of the hallway, a prisoner lies shackled to a bed. Uniformed guards stand watch. Maggie senses something different here and stops at the threshold. On her own she waves a paw at the sick man in handcuffs.
“The dogs know they’ve got a job to do,” observes Orr. “She’s an active dog, but when I get the collar out, Dakota shifts into a different mode. She knows what’s expected of her. She has to be gentle and quiet and behave. She responds to being in a hospital around people who are hurting. She’s exhausted afterwards and goes straight to sleep.”
Heart attack patient Peyton beams as she strokes Quince’s massive head. She talks about her basset hound, who she thinks saved her life during her attack. Her story’s a little hard to follow. But Quince, Dakota and Maggie listen attentively as they demonstrate the very best in bedside manners.