Pet therapy offers meaningful interaction for staff, visitors at Meritus

Five years ago, Betty Ciarrocca’s husband was shopping at a hardware store when he discovered a little red wagon with four puppies inside. The Ciarroccas had been talking about getting a puppy – a tricolor, female King Charles Caviler to be exact.

He went home and told his wife.

The Ciarroccas went back to the hardware store to find there was one tricolor, female puppy in the wagon.

They named her Macy.

“She’s very special. I like to tell everyone I got her at the hardware store,” Betty Ciarrocca said laughing.

Macy began training at 8-weeks-old. She went through obedience classes, and is registered through the Kindly Canines nonprofit as a therapy dog.

With her own volunteer ID badge dangling from her collar, Macy is one of several pet therapy dogs that come to visit staff and patients at Meritus Health each week.

At the hospital, Ciarrocca said she always takes Macy to the nurses’ station and asks if there is a patient that would like a visit.

“People who have dogs, always want a visit,” Ciarrocca said. “I put her up on the bed, and she just lays there with the patient and they pet her,” she added.

According to Jessica Casey, director of Meritus Health’s volunteer services, the first volunteer for pet therapy was recorded in 2015. The idea was developed through the many evidence-based studies that show the impact pet therapy has on a patient’s health, mental status, interaction with staff and much more.

“The pet therapy teams provide meaningful and positive interactions to patients, visitors and employees. Both the volunteers and the dogs are professionally trained and certified to be able to thoughtfully interact with others in this role,” Casey said.

Like nearly everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic caused Macy to take some time off work.

“Macy missed seeing people, she’s very social and she loves to see everyone. She is happy to be back and so am I,” Ciarrocca said.

As COVID-19 restrictions ease, it was meaningful to Meritus Health staff and patients to have Macy and her coworkers back on the job.

“I have seen staff literally fall to the floor and wrap their arms around these dogs for just a few moments,” Casey said. “They would just bury their faces in their necks for a moment, maybe release some of the tension they had been carrying around all day. It was very emotional and beautiful to witness.”

It’s impactful for Ciarrocca and other volunteers too.

“This is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my entire life; she brings joys to everyone and it’s so rewarding for me too,” Ciarrocca said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a heavy burden for staff, causing them to carry the weight of being strong, resilient and positive for their co-workers, family and the community,” Casey said.

The pet therapy program offers staff and patients an opportunity to set aside the weight of the world, and just be in the moment with a creature whose sole interest is comforting them and making them smile.