Fort Smith’s Mercy Hospital expands therapy dog program

FORT SMITH — A group of new four-legged co-workers are spreading cheer to Mercy Hospital employees, patients and their families alike.

The hospital’s therapy dog ​​program started last year with Baxter, a 1-year-old cavalier King Charles spaniel, but has recently expanded to five dogs with more planning to join shortly.

The new dogs include Lola Belle, another 1-year-old cavalier King Charles spaniel; River, a 2-year-old great Pyrenees-Australian shepherd mix; Honeybun, an 8-year-old long-haired Chihuahua; and Rusty, a 3-year-old miniature golden doodle.

Baxter’s handler, volunteer Robert Mercer, said interactions with patients are usually by request or while they’re traveling around the hospital, and last five to 15 minutes. He said having therapy dogs helps humanize the hospital environment.

“There’s so many machines and beeping and clicking and buzzing, and then you get this little bundle of fur — or a big bundle of fur — and they just humanize the place,” Mercer said. “They remind you it’s not just all medicines. In fact, a lot of us won’t even talk about their condition. Everybody wants to know are they sick? Are they feeling better? Baxter just wants to lick them on the nose.”

He said the smaller dogs are better for older patients because they can easily be held, while larger dogs such as River are better for kids because he can handle all their hugs. He said it’s a great volunteer job because everybody loves seeing you, and it spurs many conversations about dogs.

“One of our nicest times, we had probably a 45-minute visit because there was a 90-year-old patient and her 90-year-old husband in hospice,” Mercer said. “She was pretty sleepy, so Baxter just sat on her lap in bed and she fell asleep and he fell asleep while she pet him. So for about half an hour, the 90-year-old man talked all about the greatest dog they ever had back in 1945. And he’d been sitting there for a week with his wife, and it was so nice for him just to talk about something else, because they were standing vigil at the bedside.”

Mercer said the majority of Baxter’s interactions are informal run-ins with the Mercy staff as they travel to visit patients.

Pharmacy manager Cheryl White noted the therapy dogs visit medical departments that don’t interact with patients, including pharmacy, lab and environmental services, which allows them a break to address their mental health.

“The happier co-workers are, the happier they make the patients,” said Jenni Powell, manager of volunteer services at Mercy.

For several volunteers, bringing therapy dogs to Mercy is just a step to expand the practice across the River Valley.

Honeybun’s owner, Faith Walker volunteer, is a full-time student at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith and hopes to open a mental health practice someday.

River’s owner, volunteer Kaley Moore, is a biology teacher and assistant girls basketball coach for Southside High School. She said she got interested in therapy dogs when one of her students said he would want to come to school every day if there were a dog in the classroom.

“I think it was two days later I was talking to my family about wanting to do something like that,” Moore said. “I didn’t know how it would work in the school system. I think they just started the Mercy dog ​​program, so my aunt sent me the link to an article when they first started this. I reached out and got him certified. They actually just took it to the school board to allow therapy dogs in schools and they passed it, so hopefully next year we can get something going.”

Rusty’s owner, volunteer Patsy Hendrickson, said she’s also interested in doing dog therapy at the School District in addition to Mercy, as it gives her something to do as a retiree.

Mercer said the therapy dog ​​certification process takes several months. Dogs can be certified through a number of national agencies, and once approved they’re vouchered through the Alliance of National Therapy Dogs, he said.

Mercer said the therapy dogs should be receptive to strangers, not prone to nipping or barking, and nonreactive to other dogs. He said people interested in Mercy’s training dog program can shadow a volunteer to learn more information.

“For a hospital this size, if we had an even dozen volunteer handler/dog teams, we’d be thrilled,” Mercer said.

River, a 2-year-old Great Pyrenees Australian Shepherd mix, joins fellow therapy dogs Baxter and his owner Robert Mercer and Lola Belle and owner Debbie Wright on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith. Along with Rusty, a 3-year-old Miniature Golden Doodle owned by Patsy Hendrickson (not pictured), River (owned by Kaley Moore), Baxter and Lola Belle regularly provide emotional support to staff and patients at the hospital, which is looking for more volunteers to expand its roster of therapy dogs. Visit nwaonline.com/220327Daily/ for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)
Serena Sengchanthavong, a pharmacy technician, pets Lola Belle, a 1-year-old therapy dog, on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith. Lola Belle, owned by Debbie Wright, is one of four therapy dogs that regularly provide emotional support to staff and patients at the hospital, which is looking for more volunteers to expand its roster of therapy dogs. Visit nwaonline.com/220327Daily/ for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)