Welcome Waggers

It’s said that when an idea “has legs,” it has momentum. In this case, an idea that originated in Onslow’s Spirituality and Wellness committee has the momentum of four legs – and one happily wagging tail. Those legs and tail belong to Hannah, a professional therapy dog, officially on staff at Onslow Memorial and working full-time Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Erin Tallman, Vice President, Director of Patient Advocacy and Service Improvement, established and oversees Onslow’s Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) program, heading up the group known as the “Welcome Waggers” – hospital employees selected to serve as Hannah’s professional handlers and caregivers. In addition to Tallman, Hannah’s handlers are: Director of Guest Services Paul Elmore, Utilization Review Coordinator Beverly Smith, Emergency Chief Nurse Practitioner Sue Raynor, and Maternal Child Case Manager Suzie McCabe.

As stated by the Delta Society, a world resource in AAT, the purpose of a therapy dog within a healthcare setting is “to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning.” In other words, Hannah is here to help patients heal faster and feel better in both tangible and intangible ways. Tallman said the idea of acquiring a professional therapy dog to work in the hospital came from the Spirituality and Wellness committee – one of six committees tasked with improving hospital services. The mission of the hospital’s Service Improvement Program, called Sensing Others’ Needs, is to gather ideas from the ground up that can be developed and implemented into programs to improve services to patients and their families.

AAT programs like Welcome Waggers are also known for promoting communication and support within a staff, explained Tallman. “I’ve heard people who work at other healthcare facilities say how much of a blessing these dogs are to them as well as to their patients,” said Tallman. “A professional therapy dog like Hannah seems to have an innate ability to let you know that she understands what you need and is there for you.

“Hannah is very, very smart. We say words like ‘visit’ and she either lays her head on a patient’s bed, or puts her paws up on a patient’s lap, but she always gauges the stability and frailty of a patient first to know how much pressure she can apply.” In addition to providing comfort, Hannah is trained to actively assist in physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions with patients of all ages. “I hope to designate one day per week for Hannah to work in the therapy departments,” said Tallman.

Deborah Bell, founder and executive director of Lifeline Canines in Hubert, where Hannah was raised and trained, said the hospital will be able to “incorporate Hannah right into therapy work, which is a whole different level of participation than when a dog is in a strictly ‘visiting’ role.” Bell described Hannah as an ideal therapy dog. "Hannah can walk into a room of people she’s never met and pick out the person who needs her.”

A key directive in the hospital’s Staff Code of Conduct is “Sense the needs of others before they ask.” By that measure, Hannah is already well on her way to becoming a model employee – and so much more, explained Tallman. “I would like this service to help our patients forget about their pain, anxiety, and/or fears, even if it’s just for the time that Hannah visits them. I hope she brings a sense of safety and comfort, and a feeling of warmth to patients, as well as to all the employees here.”