Tessa the Animal Assisted Therapy Dog

Please Note: The dog in the accompanying photograph is the subject of the story, but any persons shown are probably not those in the story.

Photograph of Tessa dog

Every week, either on Tuesday or Thursday, Tessa and I put on our Love On 4 Paws vest and uniform and hop in the car to go to our local hospital, Little Company of Mary-Torrance. As soon as we pull up, Tessa starts her shift by greeting the valets and the other hard-working hospital staff outside. On the walk to the front door, she wags her tail and stops to greet patients in wheelchairs coming out, visitors sitting on benches, and nurses and doctors traveling between appointments. She has a special affinity for pregnant women and babies in buggies, sniffing to get the scent of a new little one.

Once we log in at the volunteer office, we are off to the elevator, where Tessa hops in and waits eagerly for the door to open so she can see which floor or patient room we will visit next. (The first time she ever rode the hospital elevator was so funny, because she hit the floor and splayed her legs out, not understanding why the room was moving! But now she is a pro rider.) Most of the time we start at 3rd floor pediatrics, where she interacts with little giggling humans. Then we go to Women's Health, receiving a giant welcome at the nurse's station. After lots of petting and photos, the nurses direct us to which patients would most like a therapy dog visit that day.

Tessa is a gentle jumper with catlike feet. This 48-pound sweetie loves to get up on the patient bed when asked and lie down to settle in for hugs and cuddles. As a McNab stock dog bred to herd cattle, she is very athletic and can even jump up on a plastic chair or couch in the hospital room to be closer to the patient. She is also very intuitive and flexible, able to maneuver around tubes, medical equipment, and bedside tables. This comes in very handy when we visit floors like oncology, cardiology, adult surgical and progressive care. I love to see her bring a smile to a patient who hasn't smiled in weeks, or bring love and distraction to someone who is in pain.

On one of our recent visits, Tessa and I had a meaningful interaction with a middle-aged patient in cardiology who said he was recovering from a heart attack. He told us he had owned several dogs growing up and was delighted to have us come to his room. When we were about to leave, he said, "Your visit has inspired me to get a dog again. My doctor told me I need to get more exercise if I want to take care of my heart, and I think a dog is just what I need to get me out walking." That made my heart sing to know that we had positively influenced his health and well-being.

I truly believe Tessa thinks she is a human instead of a dog. Since she was a puppy, she has loved to sit on a person’s lap or on the couch with her paws in the air and her back resting against the cushions. Her favorite activity is to watch TV, especially shows with dogs and horses in them. Sometimes she even watches TV with the patient in the hospital room!

Her service is truly a gratifying gift of love, and we are planning to expand our visits to other hospitals and facilities, as well as student events.