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Geisinger seeks volunteers for its pet therapy program

 Tucker is a volunteer pet therapy dog for Geisinger
Kat Bolus, WVIA News
Tucker is a volunteer pet therapy dog for Geisinger

Tucker padded around a conference room in the Henry Hood Center for Research at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville.

The friendly and outgoing Shetland Sheepdog in a red harness embroidered with his name stopped for full body pets and head rubs from Geisinger employees on March 22. It’s what he does on the floors of hospitals or in clinic offices.

Geisinger recently expanded its longtime pet therapy program to employees.
The company is looking for more volunteers and their furry friends to help provide stress relief to its staff across the hospital system.

Geisinger Pet Therapy Program

Nurse Brandi McDonald is an operations manager at Geisinger Danville. A white labradoodle recently visited the floor she works on.

“The nurses were able to take turns coming out and just spending just some time on the floor with the dog,” she said. “It was definitely a big stress relief and made a lot of people very happy.”

McDonald said the stress hospital staff has been under is extremely high. The dog performed tricks for the nurses and staff.

“Everything was so serious and people were so sick,” she said. “Just being able to step away in the middle of the day, just for a few minutes, and to not have to think about what was going on and just relax, and I guess get the serotonin levels up, made all of us really happy.”

The therapy pets program is managed by the hospital system’s volunteer services, said director Tina McDowell. The program has been a part of Geisinger for about 20 years and was typically just for patients. They opened the program up to all employees throughout the Geisinger System by request.

“Research shows us that interacting with animals really… reduces stress levels … increases morale … and those are the things that our frontline staff really need right now,” said McDowell. “It’s been a long two years.”

Therapy dogs are working dogs, she said. The handlers and their pets must go through specific training and must be certified as therapy dogs through an American Kennel Club approved program like Therapy Dogs International.

“Their job is to bring joy and relieve stress … the people that they interact with,” she said.

Barbara Yoder is Tucker’s human. The pair has been involved in pet therapy since November 2019. Yoder said the experience to uplifting to patients and staff.

“It just sometimes is such a welcome distraction for everybody. I get as much out of it as they do," she said.

Yoder thought her very fluffy, black, tan and white herding dog had the right temperament. Tucker is five years old. He’s happy, welcoming to strangers and rarely barks.

Yoder, who must stay with Tucker, said they visit staff members who have had stressful days and patients who have been given a devastating prognosis.

“It’s such a blessing and a privilege to be able to do this kind of work,” she said. “It's just that five or 10 minutes of joy you bring to them that they can kind of lay that aside and just accept some unconditional love from my little fur baby here. It’s just wonderful.”

Currently, Geisinger has more requests for staff support sessions than volunteer handlers and their certified dogs.

Geisinger is looking for volunteers on all its campuses, including in Danville, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and Lewistown. For more details about volunteering for Geisinger’s pet therapy program, contact McDowell at tsmcdowell1@geisinger.edu.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.