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Healthy Balance

Holiday Stress? These Cute Pups Are the Cure

Therapy dog Hank

The holidays can be both a wonderful and stressful time of year. You're looking forward to your favorite traditions. And getting together with family and friends.

But that might mean rushing to get everything done at work before you take time off. Or trying to make everyone in your family happy as you plan gatherings. Or the rush and stress of traveling.

When you're feeling overwhelmed, it can help to pause for a moment and focus on something comforting. So before you move to the next item on your long to-do list, check out our adorable pet therapy dogs at UVA Health.

Therapy dog Celeste
Celeste, a 10-year-old mixed breed, loves belly rubs and watching birds.

Therapy Dogs Bring Smiles & Relieve Stress Year-Round

I remember sitting in the waiting room at UVA Health Outpatient Surgery Center in 2018. I sat waiting for someone to call my name and tell me it was time to get ready for my operation. My mind turned to the major knee surgery I was about to undergo — how I'd need crutches and wouldn't be able to drive for at least 2 months.

Then the sweetest, most gentle giant of a dog walked up to me. He was a pet therapy dog there to cheer up worried surgery patients, and he did just that for me. He looked at me with his kind eyes and I felt better as I petted his soft fur.

I'm one of countless patients these amazing pet therapy dogs have comforted over the years. Learn more about them in the post below, originally published in 2011.

Therapy dog Kenny
Kenny, a 3-year-old Australian mini labradoodle, loves meeting new people and dogs.

Pet Therapy Dogs: The Fluffy, Furry, Tail-Wagging Side of Medicine

A teenage girl squeals in delight as she gazes down at Abbey, a red and white Pembroke Welsh corgi. With her mother’s help, the girl gives the eager and thankful dog some treats.

The girl is Gracie, a 14-year-old pediatric patient.

Gracie watches as Abbey performs a stop, drop and roll trick for her.

Then Shaker, a 10-year-old Doberman pinscher, hops onto an exercise table where Gracie sits waiting. Gently, he eases up next to her and sniffs. Shaker is calm. Gracie smiles. With her mother’s instructions, Gracie lifts her hand to pet the quiet dog. First her right hand, then her left.

Therapy Dogs Help Soothe Kids During Treatment

Shaker and Abbey are just two of UVA’s 10 pet therapy dogs. The dogs visit our pediatric patients at clinics and in the hospital, and they’ll even visit adult patients by request.  They are ambassadors, helping to soothe the children and make sometimes scary and stressful medical visits and hospital stays a little more normal.

Therapy dog Sully
Sully, a 4-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, loves nose work and making new friends.

Laurie Hanahan, Shaker’s owner and fellow hospital volunteer, says her dog loves visiting pediatric patients. “He’ll work the crowd,” she says.

The Doberman, who considers cats his friends, even has a way of calming adults who might be a little scared of his breed. He nuzzles up to everyone he meets, making sure to get plenty of love and attention.

“Seeing the effect your dog has on a patient is so rewarding,” Hanahan says.

A Nurse & Her Pup Both Work Helping Children

Looking to Volunteer?

With more than 50 volunteer programs, there are tons of ways to share your time and talents at UVA Health.

Karen Johnson, RN, the owner of Abbey the corgi, works in pediatric orthopedics. She’s been a pet therapy volunteer for almost 20 years, as long as UVA has had the program.

Johnson knows the difference the dogs make for young patients and their families. “The parents will give the dog a hug and take a couple of deep breaths because they’ve had a rough day or a rough drive over here,” she says.

Gracie’s mom, Elizabeth Hazelton of Richmond, says her daughter, who is in a wheelchair and has limited mobility, looks forward to seeing the pet therapy dogs and playing with them on her visits to UVA Children's.

Therapy dog Sophie
Sophie, a lab mix, loves climbing trees and hiking.

“It makes it more enjoyable, more normal, and it makes Gracie happy,” she says. “She relaxes more.”

Hanahan, too, has witnessed the love her dog gives to everyone who meets him. She and Shaker visited one little girl who couldn’t move her hands. Shaker stuck his head under the girl’s arm so she could “pet” him.

The dogs are celebrities at UVA Health and the subjects of many photo-taking sessions. The staff thought trading cards would be a fun way to create special keepsakes for the kids. Patients can collect all of the cards, which include details about each dog’s hobbies, favorite treats and more. Abbey and Shaker are featured, along with a golden retriever, a Bernese mountain dog, a Newfoundland and others.

Want to Volunteer With Your Dog?

It takes a very special dog — and a special human — to volunteer at UVA Health.

Pet therapy dogs need the right temperament because kids will pull and tug at them, testing their patience and demeanor, says Kim Garofalo, volunteer coordinator for UVA Children’s.

“It’s a commitment. It sounds so fun, but it’s also a lot of work,” says Garofalo.

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