New volunteers join hospital's pet therapy program

January 25, 2022
On one recent Wednesday, smiles were seen and laughter heard in the halls of Lawrence General, thanks to the hospital's newest volunteers: Julia and Livie Ross of North Andover. They deliver the kind of joy that can catch one off guard on the challenging days we’ve been experiencing throughout the pandemic.julia-livie-500x300-(1).jpg

Joined by Volunteer Coordinator Brenda LeBlanc, the pair toured the hospital to greet staff, making stops at the Emergency Center, Intensive Care Unit, Maternity and other areas.

“People said it was the best part of their day,” Ross said of the 90-minute tour. “One of the physicians even took a selfie with Livie to show his kids. Other times she sat or laid down while people pet her belly.”

That's right: Livie is a certified therapy dog — a Labrador mix who's been trained for three years to enter hospitals and other care settings to bring joy to patients and inspire a stress-free atmosphere for caregivers.

According to LeBlanc, the hospital's pet therapy program took two years to create after Alan Josephson, the owner of the hospital’s other therapy dog, Hunter, approached LeBlanc with the idea in September 2019. A policy was drafted, therapy animal guidance created and — with the blessing of Lawrence General's Infection Control Department — the program became a reality in August 2021.

"Miracles happen in the volunteer department," LeBlanc said. “Hunter’s owner wanted to get it going. It was a long process and now we've opened the doors. Hopefully now we can have pet therapy every day after people hear we have accepted it."

Ross and Livie underwent six weeks of state-certified training to become a pet therapy team, meaning that Ross is the only one able to hold Livie's leash in therapy settings. Training, she said, involved how to care for elderly or fragile patients and people in wheelchairs, for example.

"If someone is in a wheelchair and I walk toward them straight on and they lean forward to pet the dog, they could fall out of the chair," Ross said, explaining that she as the handler has safety training to walk around the wheelchair first. "It's stuff I would never have even thought of."

For her part, Livie just loves the attention.livie-glasses-500x300-(1).jpg

"Livie goes up with a look that says, 'Pet me,' She just loves people and being snuggled," Ross said. “She could be petted all day. When we've been in other places or hospital settings, she's gone up on patients' beds. Some people like that, so they can pet her."

The plan is for Livie to visit various hospital units once a week, according to LeBlanc. Hunter will soon return to offer pet therapy as well, she said.

Ross, who works for an education nonprofit focused on improving the social and emotional wellbeing of children, teachers and administrators, explains that she was drawn to pet therapy after a friend encouraged her to consider training Livie.

"There's tremendous research about the benefits of pet therapy and how it can reduce stress and have an impact on people's physical and emotional wellbeing," Ross said. "That's really important to us."