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It's a Dog's Life: Pet Partners Brings Well-Being to Patients at Shaw

John LaConte | Vail Health Magazine

Snuggling with Becca a King Charles-Bichon mix really helped Kimberly Clawson with her homesickness.

On April 11 2012 Kimberly was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer and from that point on her life was a blur of travel and treatment. She sought care at  Shaw Regional Cancer Center and had a double mastectomy April 23. Next came chemo then radiation treatment. She was away from home a lot.

“Everything happened so fast” she says. She was missing her husband missing her kids and missing her new dog Chloe who she'd had for less than a year at the time of her diagnosis.

While staying at Jack's Place a cancer caring lodge for patients traveling to Shaw for treatment she met Becca. “She reminded me so much of my dog” she says.

The snuggle session with Becca was part of a weekly dog visit patients at Jack's Place receive from Vail Pet Partners. Kimberly says the company from dogs like Becca helps in the recovery process. “I feel like animals incorporate a lot of healing on their own to the patients” she says.

Vail Pet Partners has several dogs that help such as Murphy a golden retriever and Gracie a Jack Russell terrier.

“I've met four or five now it's something to look forward to all the different dogs different sizes different breeds. Really cool” she says.

“They accept you for who you are: What you look like doesn't matter to them.”
The environment at Jack's Place — warm welcoming and resembling a Bachelor Gulch living room — is ideal for a therapy dog program like Vail Pet Partners.

“Some don't like the hospital because of certain smells or the clinical environment just doesn't work for them” says Cathy Vito Gracie's owner. “But Jack's Place is more like a lodge any of the dogs who are registered can come here.”

Vail Pet Partners was founded in 2005 by Vail residents Sally Clair and Blondie Vucich and has been making regular visits to Jack's Place since it opened in 2007. The organization's mission statement is to bring “health well-being and educational benefits through positive animal interactions via its animal-assisted therapy programs in area hospitals schools and other organizations.”

It operates under the umbrella of the national Pet Partners organization which registers dogs and provides insurance. The Pet Partners evaluation ensures dogs have basic manners that owners have control of their dogs that the dogs are polite and other fundamental criteria. Anyone with a friendly dog is welcome to apply.

“We're looking for people to make a commitment of once per month” says Laura Sellards Murphy's owner. “The dog has to be bathed within 24 hours of coming into one of these venues and so for the health of your dog ideally you wouldn't bathe them more than once per month anyway.”

When you and your dog are registered you become a “team.” Vail Pet Partners has approximately 20 teams with 12 to 14 teams active at any given time.

“We'd like to be visiting as much as possible” says Laura. “We just don't have enough coverage to be in the hospital every day.”

In addition to the twice-per-week visits to Jack's Place Vail Valley Pet Partners also visits the Patient Care Unit at the Vail Valley Medical Center.
On a usual workday the teams usually devote between two to four hours per visit.

“They sense illness that's why two to four hours is plenty for the dogs” Cathy says. “Because they take so much of it in ... with some patients [Gracie] will get up on the bed with the patients and curl up with them and you can tell she's just pulling it all in herself because when we leave she's exhausted.”

Gracie's been a therapy dog for four years. Cathy is also registered with Murphy so Murphy can work with her and Laura. “They're best friends” Cathy says. “When the vests go on they know they're working.”

And when the vests come off Gracie and Murphy are a couple of pooped out pooches.

“We go out and hike and run on the mountain all the time and when we get back he still has plenty of energy” Laura says about Murphy. “But when we get back from this he's out like a light because he has to think and he has to behave. When we go into the hospital we try to keep track of who pets your dog and we'll leave and 45 strangers will have pet your dog. They come home exhausted.” But as Laura put it “A tired dog is a good dog.”