Warm & Fuzzy Genesys Pet Therapy Program


Being a patient in a hospital or sitting in a waiting room while a loved one has surgery can be a very stressful time. But people at Genesys Regional Medical Center can’t help but smile when Pemba, a gentle Golden Doodle stops in to provide a little pet therapy with his handler, Norma Jean Wolf.

The duo is just one of 44 teams that are part of the Medical Center’s Pet Therapy Program, which began in 2004. “Our patients are well taken care of by our dogs,” says Karen VanCura, Director of Volunteer Services, with a smile. The pet therapy teams are scheduled to visit patients on three different shifts every day.

According to the director, studies show that pet therapy reduces stress and anxiety, which in turn lowers blood pressure and has a generally calming effect. She also said that interacting with the trained canines makes people happy, which increases their endorphin levels and in turn, makes patients healthier. “It’s a distraction for them,” Karen says. “And many patients here are missing their own pets, so they really enjoy interacting with the dogs.”



And, it isn’t just the patients who benefit from pet therapy. It’s also good for the nurses, doctors and other staff whose jobs are stressful, Karen reports. And, Pemba has some favorite staff members who are known to have a special stash of treats just for him, Norma Jean adds.

The therapy dogs are all different shapes and sizes – labs, golden retrievers, Shih Tzus, poodles, and German shepherds, to name a few. According to Karen, pet therapy dogs and their handlers undergo extensive training, a 12-week certification program. Volunteers are required to take a three-hour orientation class, have a TB test, and learn about patient privacy. The dogs also must earn the AKC Canine Good Citizen Certificate and are tested in areas such as manners, obedience and command response.

When interviewing those who are interested in the Pet Therapy Program, Karen says she observes how well a dog listens to its handler and follows simple commands. And not every applicant is accepted into the program. “Some dogs are just a little too high-strung for a hospital environment,” she says.

Norma Jean became interested in the Pet Therapy Program for Pemba after she was ill and someone told her that Pemba, a gentle giant, would make a good therapy dog. And the experience at Genesys has been very fulfilling. “Pemba loves to be petted,” she says. “He loves people and he loves being loved.” The pooch is ten years old now, and Norma Jean says he gets excited on Fridays, because he instinctively knows they will be going to Genesys.

What Norma Jean enjoys the most about the Genesys Pet Therapy Program is the reaction of the patients when they interact with Pemba. She remembers visiting an elderly patient who was extremely ill. He was sitting in a chair and when he saw Pemba, his face lit up and he waved them into his room. “He was so excited to see Pemba!” Norma Jean smiles. The man’s wife had recently died and he was very lonely. Norma Jean spent a lot of time talking to him as Pemba sat by his side. “He didn’t want us to leave,” she says. “He was the sweetest guy. That is one of the reasons why I enjoy doing this.”

The beauty of the program, Karen says, is that there is no limit on the length of time a pet can visit and there is no schedule. “They are there to meet the needs of the patients,” she adds. “We just go with the flow,” says Norma Jean. “I love volunteering here. Genesys focuses on the patient experience, and it’s been a perfect fit for us.”

10-year-old Pemba visits with Genesys Patients and Staff every Friday.
“Our patients are well taken care of by our therapy dogs.”
Karen VAnCura, Director of Volunteer Services
Norma Jean & Pemba are one of 44 pet therapy teams coordinated by karen van cura, dir., volunteer services.



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