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The Power of Pet Therapy: Four-Legged Friends Make Big Strides in Helping Patients

May 10, 2022 02:05PM ● By ERIKA ZUNTAG

The unconditional love of a tail-wagging, four-legged companion is unlike any other. In fact, research shows that a loving pet can do far more than keep us company.  

The relationships we create with animals are not only treasured, but also have health benefits. The National Institutes of Health Main Campus says these interactions increase the anti-stress hormone oxytocin and lower levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Other studies suggest pets may also improve heart health, reduce anxiety, and help manage pain. 

With this knowledge, it’s no wonder why therapy dogs are good at what they do. Several communities, organizations, and hospitals in Southwest Florida know this firsthand.  

At Palmview, an independent assisted living and memory-care community at Gulf Coast Village in Cape Coral, residents and staff welcome recreational therapist Stephanie Smith and her 10-year-old therapy dog, Hunter. With specialty training in dementia and cognition issues, Smith uses Hunter’s charm and gentle nature to connect with residents and provide therapeutic interactions.  

“It’s funny. Everybody always asks me how I trained him so well, but I believe he trained me,” Smith says. “The residents that I work with may not know my name, but they know that I bring Hunter. They remember his name and call it outright, which is a great way for them to utilize their brain and make those cells work every day.” 

The kind yellow Labrador retriever found a forever home with Smith 10 years ago when she discovered him neglected and wandering the woods of her neighborhood. From that day forward, Hunter has been using his second chance to provide comfort and cuddles to those who need it most—just ask the memory-care residents at his new home at Palmview. 

“There are many folks who just don’t communicate well, but there’s something about Hunter that causes them to pet him and share their life,” Smith says.  

Years of research have shown that an animal’s very presence can help reduce the impacts of dementia or Alzheimer’s, such as anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, and loneliness.  

In a matter of months, Smith’s therapy dog has become a familiar, friendly face that residents and their families look for, never missing a chance to spend time with Hunter whenever they can. 

“It’s hard for families and friends to go through the loss of a loved one that they’re actually still able to be with,” Smith says about residents with cognitive impairments. “To have Hunter, it really gives them an opportunity to just breathe for a minute.” 

At Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, therapy dog Dorian works full time to help heal the whole family. 

The hospital has more than a dozen therapy dogs that offer a gentle touch to patients, including Dorian, a golden doodle, who helps young patients in need of an extra set of paws during treatment, providing an alternate focus during procedures and helping patients meet clinical goals. 

Dorian is a hospital-based community service dog provided through a grant from Dunkin Donuts’ Joy in Childhood Foundation. Unlike therapy dogs that are visiting companions, Dorian’s full-time job is to act as a distraction for patients who may experience discomfort. He can demonstrate imaging or procedures to patients who may be reluctant or who are unsure about what comes next. He comforts families who have lost a loved one or received a serious diagnosis. He is also available to help staff members deal with loss and stress. 

When Christina Shelbourne read about Dorian, she immediately knew he could be an asset to her daughter Chloe’s health team for a chronic illness that requires blood work every six months. 

The few minutes Dorian and Chloe share have made a significant difference in Chloe’s treatment. While Dorian sits on the bed with Chloe during the procedure, Chloe does not budge.  


Erika Zuntag is a writer, creator, and storyteller raised in the Peach State, who now calls the Sunshine State home.