LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Wagging tails brought a smiling face to 13-year-old Kaitlyn Stinebaugh as she made her way down the hall of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Covenant Children's hospital on a recent Wednesday.
The furry visitors are usually not allowed in the ICU units, but hospital personnel made an exception for what they called "our little celebrity."
Sarah, Kaitlyn's mother, said her child's smile was a change from the usual expressions shown during regular extended visits in the past six months.
"It's just a change from being in here all the time," she said.
The expression meant Zoe, a Yorkie and toy poodle mix, and Cass, a standard poodle, served their purpose.
They are part of a local pet therapy program certified by national branches.
The pets involved in local pet therapy programs have special certification to go into health care facilities with their owners. They visit some local hospitals and nursing homes with a mission to help patients feel better, if only for a moment.
Before becoming a therapy pet team, the animals and owners must go through a training course where the animals are tested in different situations to make sure they keep a calm demeanor in a hospital setting.
"It's multifaceted with benefits," said Cayce Kaufman, regional patient experience director for Covenant Health. "Caregivers get a lot of benefit as well. Healthcare is pretty stressful from the caregiver's side. When they see a four-legged friend coming down the hallway, it lights up their whole day. It gives them a diversion. It's a great escape to see a dog here in the hospital."
Susan Bailey, director of volunteer services at University Medical Center, said pets have a natural sense to heal.
"When a person pets a dog or cat, it relieves stress," she said. ". They instinctively know what to do."
The therapy animals in Lubbock most often seen are dogs. Dakota may be the exception.
The 17-pound brown tabby cat, also known as Dr. Dakota, makes rounds at UMC giving "cat scans."
Philip Wischkaemper, Dakota's owner, said his cat has been a therapy pet for about seven years and is the only therapy cat in Lubbock, to his knowledge.
"There's a novelty factor," Wischkaemper said. "There are not many cats in hospitals. . When you've got a pet this great, it's really a shame to not share."
Critters for Christ is a pet therapy program with volunteers that visit the Covenant facilities.
Melinda Hatler, Critters for Christ volunteer, trains pet therapy teams for certification. She said the program is affiliated with Therapy Dogs Inc. To become a pet therapy team through Critters for Christ, Hatler said a handler and their pet are required to attend classes once a week for eight weeks.
"They learn the skills for pet therapy," she said. "Obedience and things that the dog doesn't already know."
Hatler said she recommends pet owners becoming pet therapy teams only when owners have time to work with their animal.
She said the animals are required to pass tests and observations to become certified.
Hatler and her dog Tony visit the Covenant facilities at least once a week.
Margaret Row is also a pet therapy tester for the Lubbock branch of Therapy Dogs Inc. She said she and Tom Evans, another tester, conduct dog testing for pet therapy.
"It involves looking for dogs that like people, are good with other dogs and mind you," she said.
As people call, dates are set for Row and Evans to review the rules and regulations of pet therapy. She said there are a few limitations as to the breeds that they can test.
"It doesn't matter the breed," she said. "The only ones we're not allowed to test are wolf breeds, hybrids, coyotes and coyote hybrids."
She said the dog must be well behaved and like people.
"I would say we have probably close to 150 to 200 handlers with dogs," Row said. "Not all of them visit anymore. Some got into it and really don't like it so they don't do it anymore for whatever reason."
Aside from being a tester, Row said she has a miniature schnauzer named Sadi who regularly makes rounds at UMC.
"She just loves it," Row said. "Most terriers are very hyper. She does bark, but once she comes in a hospital, it's 'we've got to go to work.'"
Denver, a golden doodle, is also a therapy dog who visits UMC.
J. Matthew Driskill, senior clinical department administration for the Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center and Denver's owner, said pet therapy has had measurable influence on patient health.
"He does a good job of taking the cares and pains away from individuals," Driskill said. "Therapy has shown blood pressure goes down. People heal and get better quicker when they have therapy pets involved in their therapy."
Driskill described an incident when Denver was present and helped distract a boy he said was about 11 or 12 years old as he was given an IV.
"He was trying to be brave," Driskill said.
Driskill said he and Denver were going to wait by the door of his room until the nurse called them in. He said he watched the boy visibly showed signs of relaxation.
"He was like, 'I didn't even realize you'd done it'," Driskill said.
Wischkaemper said Dakota once sparked a reaction from a patient who had been in a coma. He said the visit was a special request. He said he was told the patient had been unresponsive until Dakota was placed on her chest where he began to purr. He said she responded by opening her eyes, something her family had not seen for a while.
"Pets provide a different kind of healing," said Kaufman. "It's body, mind and spirit healing."