On the Job: Reggie, Cooper, Sasha, and Otis

They are trained and certified, and handlers carry their business cards. People take notice when they arrive and often, don’t want them to leave.

Story by Lisa Stamos | Photo by Julie Linnekin

Barrington’s animal-assisted therapy dogs, and the handlers who care for them, bring great joy and healing moments to patients and their families at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, JourneyCare, and many other locations.

Animal-assisted therapy is a relatively new service developed locally by innovative people at JourneyCare and Advocate Good Shepherd. Quintessential

Barrington talked with Julie Zuidema at Advocate Good Shepherd and Kathleen Recchia at JourneyCare to learn more about these meaningful programs.

Two Women

Lead the Way

Julie Zuidema, the manager of Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital’s Volunteer Services and Community Relations, has the perfect background to have started animal-assisted therapy in Barrington. At the hospital, Zuidema runs an epicenter of activity that includes about 1,000 active human and animal volunteers that operate in 70 worksites and units on and off the hospital’s main campus. Her degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (where she also grew up) is in Anthropology, and she then earned a Masters in Counseling. She recalls the family dogs she grew up with and vowed to have a Golden Retriever of her own one day. Zuidema worked as a vice president of administration in St. Paul for the State of Minnesota immediately after college and secured a wide range of organizational skills that she brought to Barrington.

Zuidema ran the former Volunteer Center of Greater Barrington from 1998 to 2003, where she learned about the area’s large nonprofit community and made connections. It was later that she worked for Hospice of Northeastern Illinois (now JourneyCare) where she realized the value of bringing in animals to help people through difficult situations. Bringing animal-assisted therapy to Good Shepherd was a natural step for her, and once she gained the trust of the medical community, saw the program flourish.

Since 2012, Kathleen Recchia has managed JourneyCare’s animal-assisted therapy program as the organization’s Director of Innovative Services. Recchia’s background is also well-suited for animal-assisted therapy management. She earned her degree in Social Work from Southern Illinois University and then received her Masters in Nonprofit Management. Her first experience with an animal focused therapy was at another health care company, where she developed a program of innovative therapies that included working with dogs.

JourneyCare has 17 pet handler teams that are certified by Therapy Dogs International, and visits are usually offered to a patient once per week, following a referral for that patient. The visits run for close to one hour, and the majority of them occur offsite in a patient’s home. The territory is a large one, covering 10 counties. Recchia says one of the greatest benefits of animal-assisted therapy is helping a family cope with pain and grieving.

Jim Buster talks about his dog, Clancy

Jim Buster is the director of Chapter 264 of Therapy Dogs International

I have been involved with Therapy Dog International (TDI) since 2007. TDI is a volunteer organization that is dedicated to regulating, testing, and the registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, other institutions, and wherever else therapy dogs are needed.

I became involved with the Good Shepherd’s Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) program in 2009. During my time with the AAT program at Good Shepherd, I have been fortunate enough to be allowed to participate in assisting the recruitment of potential dogs and handlers to the program, as well as the reviewing process of potential dogs and handlers. I also audit the dogs and handlers that are already in the program to confirm that the program is in compliance with all of the hospital’s rules and regulations.

There is nothing more rewarding than walking into a young child’s hospital room, and to see them sit up in their bed, and then see the magic of a smile come across their face when they see the dog walk into the hospital room. Then, that smile grows even larger when they find out that the dog is there to see them. For the time the dog is in the room, the child seems to lose all thoughts, worries, and concerns as to why they are in the hospital. At the same time, you can see the same thing happening to the parents, that they aren’t thinking about why their child is in there, as well.

Or, when you’re walking through the surgery waiting room with the dog, just to have a loved one of a patient that’s in surgery see the dog, and then gets on their knees, and hug the dog with tears in their eyes saying “this is just what I needed right now, thank you, thank you”. It’s not only the patients that benefit from the dogs, but visitors, and staff, as well are overwhelmingly receptive to the dogs being in the hospital.

And you know your dog is making a difference when a cardiac patient is discharged, and decides to stay just a little longer, because they were told that there was a therapy dog on the floor making visits, and they just wanted to get a visit, too.

Another part of the AAT program that makes a difference at Good Shepherd is the unmatched human compassion that every dog handler shows to the patients they visit. I have had the fortunate opportunity to shadow with every handler and dog in the program, only to come away with something from each and every one of them that allows me personally to be a better, and more compassionate, volunteer.

Doris Gierlach and her dog, Otis

Otis is an eight-year-old male, Golden Doodle.

In an environment that can be stressful, painful, and wrought with difficult decisions, Otis provides a visit of unconditional love, joy, and comfort.

Great meaning comes from living a purposeful life. As our family of four children grew up and became teenagers and young adults, it was apparent that both Otis and I needed to redefine our roles. A dear friend of mine who has lived with MS for years was hospitalized at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital last spring, and on my way to visit her I noticed the wall of Animal Assistant Therapy dogs that volunteer with their handlers at the hospital.

Soon after, Otis was evaluated for his obedience and disposition and became certified. My friend also became part of the training, by teaching Otis how to approach someone with a walker, or in a wheelchair. Almost a year from that date, Otis has been an active volunteer for Journeycare, where he visits people in their homes, at rehab centers, retirement homes and at the IPU in Barrington. Otis makes monthly visits to The Garlands, where he has his own fan club. In addition, twice a month you will find Otis visiting with family, patients, and staff at Good Shepherd. Most recently, Otis has been visiting with youth at the Barrington Youth and Family Services, and was a part of the, “ Read To Rover, “ program at the Barrington Area Library.

It is an honor to walk into a room and see someone’s face light up with a smile. The visit maybe short, and sometimes entices conversation about that person’s own pet, or the one they grew up with. As we finish our visits, I am often told a deep felt thank-you and I, too, am filled with joy. Otis’ one year anniversary as a therapy dog will be in September.

Steve Grossman and his dog, Buttons

Buttons is a 5 1/2 year old male, Shih Tzu/Pekingese

Buttons visits the Barrington IPU, Friendship Village Alzheimer Unit, and makes in-home visits. He brings comfort, relaxation, and joy to the people he meets. Journeycare asked me to have my previous dog, Annie, certified, and I did. When I experienced the comfort and joy she brought to patients and families, I knew that I would have to certify Buttons, too. For people who like dogs, Buttons brings a lot of joy and comfort. For a few minutes they forget their troubles. Buttons has been a therapy dog for two years.

Sarah Townsley and her dog, Cooper

Cooper is an 8-year-old Chocolate Labrador.

Cooper came into our lives about two years ago, and I knew immediately that he would make a great therapy dog. He is very mellow and adjusts to new situations easily. We call him our “gentle giant”.

Cooper brings comfort to people and puts a smile on their face, in difficult times. Without saying a word, Cooper brings joy into their day, if only for a little while. He has been a service dog for about a year and a half.

Lisa Malovance and her dog, Reggie

Reggie is a male, Golden Retriever.

Reggie loves people and makes them smile. He’s been making visits for 1 1/2 years. I often get comments such as, “He likes me! He is smiling at me. He is so soft! I love petting him.” Inevitably, our visits lead to stories about the dogs that people have had in their lives, and allows me to establish a relationship with my assigned patient.

Reggie and I have also done agility training, and have entered a few agility trials. Instead of focusing on the course, Reggie would visit the judge or photographer on the course, which seemed to make him very happy, but not successful at agility.

It became evident that what Reggie truly enjoyed was sharing his love with people. We still attempt agility trials, but I think his hospice visits make him the happiest.

Here is a story of our first assigned patient. She had severe dementia, and was confined to a wheel chair. Her eyes were closed, and she made no response to my voice. When Reggie placed his head in her lap, her eyes popped opened, she started petting Reggie, and giggled as he licked her fingers. He got this response with every visit!

Kathy Woods and her dog, Irish Marie

Irish Marie is a female, 8 1/2 pound Poodle-Shih Tzu mix.

Irish Marie was rescued from a shelter in Wisconsin about nine years ago. (She adopted me!)

Irish Marie has been certified as a therapy dog for about five years, and since that time we have been visiting hospice patients, families, and staff. Irish Marie seems to have a very peaceful and pleasant effect on the people she meets in hospice care. Her presence brings conversation and smiles to people who are experiencing one of the most difficult and sacred moments in the life of their family, the death of a loved one.

We do the majority of our visiting in the JourneyCare Barrington Inpatient Unit. Irish Marie hops up on patient’s beds, snuggles, and allows lots of petting. Families tell stories of their own pets and how important they have been in the lives of their loved one, who is dying. Irish Marie lets little ones visiting grandma or grandpa in the unit walk her down the hall, providing a welcome diversion for stressed family members. She also supports the administrative office staff, running from office to office for hugs and special treats, bringing smiles and good cheer wherever she goes.

After over 30 years in hospice and health care administration, now that I have retired, I am enjoying returning to working directly with patients and their families. Pet therapy provides a bridge that is supportive and non-threatening. I leave each visit feeling that I have received so much more than Irish Marie and I have given. I feel that we, as volunteers, bring a special something, a recognition of what will be a “new normal” for family members, as well as the opportunity for patients and families to experience a pleasant moment together, making every moment count.

Jim Jarvis and his dog, Sasha

Sasha is a 2-year-old male, Shetland Sheepdog.

Sasha has been working as a therapy dog for three months. He visits people in hospice and nursing homes. He’s a gentle dog that is good with people, and people, especially children, bond with the dog. Sasha is two years old and enjoys being with people and loves attention. Many people had dogs in their lives, and he brings back fond memories. Sasha is a great companion and vey obedient.