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How Dogs Help North Texas Heal

The dogs that lend a helping paw

As I enter the Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Plano, the smell of a typical hospital is evident. But the chemical cleanliness is quickly overtaken by puppy breath. As I bend down, two dogs greet me with wagging tails — a white bichon frise (Rayna) and a golden retriever (Caleb). They each wear their own hospital uniforms in the form of a blue Baylor Scott & White bandana and a blue collar, and yes, they have their own official name tags. 

The owners, Linda Marler and Sue Geller, as well as hospital staff members, lead the way down the halls to the room where patients wait after being discharged. Dogs like Caleb and Rayna can often be found in this room to provide comfort to those waiting for spouses, relatives or friends to pick them up or fill out discharge paperwork. 

“Our emergency room is packed, so if a patient is discharged, they come here to wait,” says Director of Guest Services Robin Jacks. “The dogs are always welcome in here, and patients really love it.” 

The dogs are not only there for the patients. The staff uses the dogs as well, sometimes more than the patients do. There’s usually a staffer seated in the discharge room, this time with Rayna in front of her. Showing off some of her tricks, Rayna gives high-fives and pulls out tissues from a box — Geller says it is her most helpful trick, especially during allergy season.

Since 1985, Baylor Scott & White has advocated for the integration of dogs into the medical domain. Two of its initiatives have revolutionized patient recovery methods: the implementation of therapy animals and the provision of service dogs to individuals requiring assistance. 

Thirty-five years ago, Marler began working at Baylor Scott & White as the RN/education coordinator at the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation. Possessing a lifelong fondness for dogs, she wanted to engage in the therapy program — starting in 1989, her involvement was initially confined to volunteering during her free moments. Presently, she holds the position of animal-assisted therapy coordinator on a full-time basis at Baylor Scott & White.

Marler coordinates all animal-based activities and therapy with the furry volunteers and their owners throughout DFW. Currently, she looks after 62 volunteers with 67 dogs throughout the hospitals. The dogs, with breeds ranging from Cavalier King Charles spaniels to rottweilers, volunteer at 16 locations across North Texas. Many staff members are involved in the program with their own pets. 

“A while back, we had an elderly patient,” Marler says, telling me a story about one of her dogs, Eli. “She was unresponsive, and her daughter requested that I place Eli on the bed. He rested his head on the woman’s chest, and the woman reached out and pet him. Her eyes sort of fluttered open, and she looked at him.”

Marler’s three-year-old, Caleb, is a newer volunteer in the program and still learning the ropes, but his big smile and excited licks make him an obvious natural. She explains that she recently lost one of her other goldens but is looking to bring a new one home in the near future — a face that will likely enter a number of Baylor Scott & White facilities. 

The seven of us humans and two dogs file into the elevator, then find an empty patient room to model how the dogs assist those still admitted. One staff member puts on a patient gown and sits in the recliner chair before Rayna jumps onto her lap. Caleb is given his own chair to sit in next to the bed — he’s far too large to squeeze onto the small chair. 

Marler and Geller each give the dogs commands to sit, lay down and, in one case, look toward my camera for a quick photograph. Each of the dogs knows a number of tricks, not just for show but to bring positivity and potentially a laugh to sick patients and exhausted staff. Rayna spins, stands on his hind legs and walks on Geller’s feet, while Caleb waves, shows off his knowledge of colors and reads commands from paper — yes, reads. 

Marler explains that after a day at the hospital, the animal volunteers are usually worn out, looking forward to a long nap — after a pup cup from the Starbucks in the hospital, of course. She says that dogs pick up on humans’ feelings and emotions and often carry those with them as well. The stress, anxiety and discomfort of being in a hospital is transferred to the dogs, but that doesn’t stop them from loving every moment. “You can see it, the dogs love it just as much as the patients,” Marler says. 

Geller tells me as we gather in the board room that one-year-old Rayna is her fifth bichon in the program. She wears a star pendant on her shirt in remembrance of her first dog in the program, Star. Throughout Geller’s time in the program, she’s harnessed an understanding of how important the job of volunteering is. 

“It’s an amazing way to put your life in perspective,” Geller says. “You see what is happening with other people, and things you were worried about don’t seem quite so important. It’s an incredible feeling to walk into a room with people who are obviously scared and hurting and to walk out, and they are left smiling.” 

Caleb typically works five days a week in a variety of hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Big dogs like him are the perfect tool for rehab patients to use for physical practices such as brushing and muscle-building activities. “It’s another way for the dogs to help patients and speed up the recovery process,” says Marler. 

Canine Companions is another way Baylor Scott & White has revolutionized animal-based therapy. It’s one of the leading service dog programs in the nation, with the goal of raising dogs to help clients live with greater independence. Since its founding in 1975, the dogs and all follow-up services are provided at no cost to clients. The company’s North Texas location with Baylor Scott & White Health on the Kinkeade Campus in Irving provides service dogs to adults, children and veterans. 

Bred with precision, golden retrievers, labradors and their hybrid counterparts are proven to be some of the most successful service dogs because of their impressive brains and beyond-friendly attitudes. Upon reaching the age of two months, these puppies are entrusted to dedicated volunteers, referred to as puppy raisers, who assume the responsibility of nurturing and training them for a span of eighteen months. 

Once training is complete, the dogs are sent to their new families to help those with PTSD, special needs and physical disabilities. 

The dogs from Canine Companion undergo rigorous training in over 40 commands, encompassing tasks such as activating and deactivating light switches, facilitating door openings, pulling wheelchairs and retrieving objects.

But trauma isn’t only happening in hospitals. When the mass shooting in Allen left the community grieving, volunteers with the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry came to the scene from across the country. Seven AKC purebred golden retrievers patiently sat on the grass in front of makeshift memorials, while hundreds gathered to pay their respects to the eight people who lost their lives. Kids and adults alike sat with the dogs, giving pets and hugs to the four-legged therapists. 

“People can reach down — or sometimes even kneel or lay down — and talk to the dog, and nobody is going to judge them,” Director of Communications and Media Relations Debra Baran tells me.

“Our LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs and their handlers are blessed to spend time with everyone they meet, including individuals who have experienced a tragic event in their community.”

These dogs are trained to provide the best care possible. LCC trains the dogs and handlers at their facilities in Northbrook, Barrington, and East Dundee, Illinois. The training is conducted by LCC’s professional canine trainers, and they work with volunteers who foster the dogs during the training period — which involves 2,000 hours over a period of 18-24 months. Training begins at eight weeks old with volunteer apprentice trainers. 

When a crisis occurs, LCC notifies all of the K-9 Ministry affiliates to determine availability, and teams arrive within 24 hours of an invitation — often less. The LCC deployment lead works with the host church or a local contact to determine where the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs are needed the most.

“Their vests read PLEASE PET ME, welcoming interaction with those they meet,” Baran says. “The LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs bring a calming presence and are ready to share friendship, love, comfort and hope to everyone they meet.” 

This year alone, the LCC dogs have helped communities after tragedies like the first anniversary of the Robb Elementary School shooting, the Michigan State University shooting and four others across the U.S., including Allen. 

It’s fair to say, and many agree, that dogs such as the ones in hospitals and at the scene of tragedy do more than provide a comforting presence — they help those hurting begin to heal. 

This article was featured in Local Profile's latest magazine