On Thursday mornings,
like clockwork, Dorothy and Mabel show up at University
of Iowa Hospitals and
Clinics, raring to go. Even though Mabel’s
in her senior years, Dorothy and others who know
her well say she’s one of the most giving,
caring, and dedicated souls.
These two best friends and hospital volunteers go
room-to-room on the Intermediate Pulmonary Care Unit,
asking if patients would enjoy a visit. Sometimes
staff members peek in on them with a smile, or wait
in the hall to say hello.
On one recent visit, Mabel happily greeted Dick
Hines, a UI Health Care social worker. He called
her a sweetie and stroked her head.
Then he gave her a dog biscuit.
So, Mabel’s not your typical volunteer. Mabel,
a 12-year-old pointer-dalmatian mix, and her handler,
Dorothy Gerr, are one of two canine-human teams participating
in the hospital’s Furry Friends certified dog
Even though the program officially began last year,
it was 20 years in the making, says Sue Tietz, a
senior recreational therapist and one of the program’s
Long ago, the hospital formed a committee and delved
into all sorts of concerns about safety and logistics,
working to get everyone on board.
So far, Gerr’s team and one other—Judy
Thorn and her 10-year-old terrier mix, Sullivan—are
OK’d to work in several psychiatric units and
the pulmonary care unit. Even so, many steps are
taken to ensure patients’ health and security
and the animals’ well being.
The canine/human teams go through rigorous training.
They must be certified by the Delta Society, the
international organization that trains service and
therapy animals, and intensely screened by Tietz
and Kristi Nove, another therapist and program coordinator.
Handlers are required to participate in volunteer
training, and dogs must pass numerous physicals and
specimen tests to continue.
“It’s a lot to go through to do something
that you don’t get paid for. It’s not
a job for them, it’s very special to them,” Tietz
says. “These owners are very dedicated. And
it’s this very intrinsic thing. They love their
pets and want to share them and their gifts.
“I think the teams are as rewarded as the
patients by the visits.”
Dog owners Gerr and Thorn, and their canine companions,
are visitation veterans. Gerr adopted Mabel nine
years ago and they started visiting hospitals in
Atlanta, Ga., shortly thereafter. They knew they
couldn’t give it up when they moved to Iowa
City a year and a half ago.
Gerr, whose husband Fred is a professor in the College
of Public Health, serves as pastor of Viola United
Methodist Church and also is a chaplain at St. Luke’s
Hospital in Cedar Rapids.
Thorn and Sullivan tallied more than 500 hours of
volunteer service at the University of North Carolina–Chapel
Hill hospital while Thorn finished graduate school.
They moved to the Midwest three years ago, when Thorn’s
husband, Kevin Satisky, became a resident in psychiatry
at UI hospitals.
Hines, a UI Health Care social worker, and
Mabel greet each other in the hallway of
the Intermediate Pulmonary Care Unit, where
Mabel was visiting patients. (Above: Hand-paw
graphic courtesy of Cody Ash, design artist
for the hospital’s Joint Office for Marketing
Thorn, now on the biology faculty at Knox College
in Galesburg, Ill., spends her weeks there, then
drives here every Friday for Sullivan’s hospital
visits and some catching up on her family life.
With all the other activities and responsibilities
in their lives, why do these two handlers make time
for volunteering with their dogs?
“Sullivan’s always been a big suck-up.
If he had his way, he’d be a Wal-Mart greeter
and say hello to everyone who walked in. He just
loves people. I love seeing him and the patients’ reaction
to him,” Thorn says. “I can’t not
go. I have this gift—Sullivan—and I’ll
only have him for who knows how many years. I may
never get this kind of opportunity again.”
Gerr feels much the same way.
“If I were in the hospital, I’d want
a dog to visit me,” she says. “I believe
strongly in the connection between animals and people.
Mabel just loves hanging out with people. It’s
They’re certainly not alone. The Delta Society
has screened and trained more than 6,400 pet-partner
teams in the United States and four other countries.
They help nearly 1 million people a year. UI Hospitals
and Clinics’ visitation teams see about 20
or so patients a week, on average.
Judith Crossett, associate professor (clinical)
of psychiatry, has long been an avid supporter of
She notes that a visiting animal can offer patients
something to look forward to during sometimes long,
dull days. A patient’s hospital stay also may
be interspersed with painful episodes—such
as shots, foul-tasting medicine, uncomfortable positioning
for tests or X-rays, or doctors asking intrusive
“The pet does none of that. It’s wonderful
at just being present with people. Our pastoral care
services do that too, but ‘being present with’ is
a skill people have to learn, while the pet does
it naturally, without reservation,” Crossett
She says she has seen patients relax with a pet
in a way they don’t with people, and they continue
to talk about the animal after the visit is over.
Particularly in elderly patients who tend to talk
very little, she says, the “opening up” is
wonderful to see.
“Patients start talking with each other, with
staff, just reminiscing,” she says. “Anything
that gets the interest and thoughts out into the
world and gets them interacting is beneficial.”
One of the most important aspects of dog visitation,
Tietz believes, is that patients make the choice
to participate or not. Maybe a patient’s more
of a cat person. Or allergic. Or too sick to be bothered
If a patient is in isolation, he or she can choose
to have Mabel or Sullivan sit by the room’s
window and peer in. But it’s not a requirement.
No one’s forcing a furry one on them.
That actually can be very empowering to a hospital
patient, Tietz says.
“There’s a lot during a hospital stay
that patients have no control over. They have to
take medicine. They must have their vitals taken.
They have to endure a lot,” she says. “Here’s
something they can enjoy if they want to, or they
can say no. It gives them a choice.”
by Amy Schoon
Editor’s note: For more information on
the Furry Friends program, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the Delta Society, go to www.deltasociety.org.
And a related article in this issue about how
patients can have their own pets visit them.