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Healthy Tips

Meet River, A Four-Legged Caregiver

Therapy Dogs Provide Variety of Benefits

Not all caregivers have two feet. In fact, you might spot some wagging tails as they make their rounds visiting patients. Meet four- year-old River, who helps deliver a certain type of care you might not expect in a hospital setting.

Comforting Beginnings

River is just like any other dog. Although her exact breed is unknown, the affectionate pup loves boat rides, snuggling and toys — any and all toys. When she’s not playing, though, you can find River busy at work. She currently makes her rounds as a certified therapy dog at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, as well as local senior centers and nursing homes, where her love for comforting others was first discovered.

“I took her to see my mom and many other people in her nursing home. River was loving and calm during our visits and brought many smiles to residents,” says Ralph Tompkins, River’s owner and handler. “Mom became critically ill, and River would lay in bed or sit with her in the chair for hours. I could see how much comfort she gave to mom.”

That great experience encouraged Ralph to pursue training to be able to continue to give back to others. After River received her American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen, she completed training and testing to become a therapy dog.

A Rewarding Experience

Canine Therapy Corps (CTC) has worked with Northwestern Medicine for more than a decade, most recently partnering for a room-to-room therapy dog visitation program that has been active since 2010. Therapy dogs have been shown to lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health by reducing heart rate, and reduce pain. Additionally, interaction with canine caregivers has been shown to release endorphins, which have a calming effect and help reduce anxiety.

It takes a special kind of dog to become a therapy dog. Dogs must pass an extensive exam that includes 14 exercises. Once certified, CTC dogs may participate in two types of programs: Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal-Assisted Activity (AAA). Dogs at Northwestern Medicine participate in AAA therapies, which aim to bring comfort and companionship to patients.

It is also rewarding for handlers. Tompkins says it is an honor to be able to play a role in this experience. “I do it because it’s rewarding. It gives them a few moments of joy and makes them feel happy,” he explains. And if her consistently wagging tail is any indication, River enjoys the time as much as patients.

While she loves piling up her toys for her dad to find, River also knows exactly when it’s time to work. “She recently sat with a patient who was missing her dogs. She asked if River could sit with her in bed. They sat there smiling and laughing, with River’s her head on her lap, for 45 minutes,” says Tompkins.

When she is done visiting patients, River looks at Ralph with a cocked head and raises her paw. It’s how she indicates that it’s time to leave until the next time she’s to bring comfort and care to patients.

Thanks to Tompkins and River, patients and their families enjoy a welcome respite with a furry friend. Not only does River help promote physical benefits, but patients tend to breathe more slowly and become more relaxed when petting her. This paves the way to psychological benefits, including reduced loneliness and comfort during their stay.

She might be small, but her benefits are mighty.