Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast has started a new Sacred Paws Pet Therapy program that is a volunteer animal-assisted pet therapy program.

Volunteer animal-assisted activities are utilized within Sacred Heart Health System as short, diversional meet-and-greet activities that can produce positive health effects.

SHHEC currently has two therapy dogs, Annie, a Golden Retriever, and Duffy, a West Highland terrier. They and their handler or a volunteer will visit patients on the in-patient floor and out-patient waiting rooms and common areas.

“The program is for our patients as well as our staff and the response so far has been amazing,” said Sharon Abele, volunteer services manager. “These furry friends have brought lots of smiles to patients, families and staff who are loving the experience.”

Visit content occurs naturally and visits are as long or as short as necessary. To ensure that both the handler and animal are an appropriate team that interacts with patients/families, a Responsible Adult Handler (RAH), who is a specially trained professional, accompanies the therapy dogs at all times and assume responsibility for the animal while on the hospital campus.

“The Sacred Paws dogs have brought the staff much needed relief during stressful times,” said Melissa Day, nurse manager for the medical/surgical unit. “You can truly feel the environment of the unit change when we see Annie or Duffy arrive. It is always the bright spot of our week, and we look forward to bringing more dogs on board.”

Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field using dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems. Therapy animals can provide immense benefits to patients and has been proven to reduce depression, anxiety, pain and fatigue in patients with a variety of health conditions as well as reinforce rehabilitation goals.

Many people are beginning to recognize the extent to which pets can facilitate therapy for an assortment of human problems. Our companion animals are known to offer us many health benefits, most importantly, abundant and unconditional love.

For more information about the Sacred Paws Pet Therapy program or to become involved, contact Sharon Abele at 850-278-3081 or email sabele@ascension.org.