The fuzziest kind of medicine

The fuzziest kind of medicine

Shands at UF therapy dog program brings patients and families canine comfort

By Meredith Rutland


Jori Taylor Hall, 20, pets Rackley during her pet therapy visit./Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Rackley looks at 8-year-old Bruce Rushford as he rubs her golden fur and smiles.

“Mommy, show her Shadow!” Bruce says.

His mom picks up a stuffed dog. Rackley looks at it intently, perhaps wondering why another dog is there. She inches her head closer. The toy barks. Rackley looks at Bruce and wags her tail.

Rackley, a 5-year-old goldendoodle, is one of 22 therapy dogs that volunteers at Shands at UF. The therapy dog program, which started at Shands in 1995, gives patients the chance to enjoy a fuzzy comfort that is typically off-limits in the hospital setting, says Constance Keeton, director of volunteer services for Shands at UF.

“It takes people out of the hospital mode,” she says. “People are very stressed in a hospital, so it reminds them of their home and their pets, and it gives them something to think about other than their illness.”

Rackley and owner Cathy Gertner, who lives part-time in Georgia, come to Shands at UF at least once a week when they are in Gainesville. When Gertner ties on Rackley’s light blue Therapy Dogs Inc. bandana — her work “uniform,” which identifies her as a registered therapy dog — Rackley starts jumping like a puppy, Gertner says.

Gertner’s chin-length blond hair bobs as she leads Rackley on a four-foot leash through the hospital. Gertner wears a green polo with a paw sewn below the left collar. They both wear volunteer nametags.

Approaching an open door in the pediatrics unit, Gertner softly asks, “Does anybody want a visit from a fluffy puppy?”

Bruce Rushford, 8, spends time with Rackley in his hospital room. One of the guidelines the goldendoodle follows is only getting on a patient’s bed if the patient allows it./Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Rebekaah Weichart, 15, invites the duo into her room. Setting her division homework aside for a bit, she smiles as Rackley walks up to her open hand. She pets Rackley while Gertner chats with her about school. When they leave, Gertner gives Rebekaah a get-well card with Rackley’s picture and information on it. She usually gives out a coloring page, too, and a sticker that reads “Pet therapy bringing smiles and joy.”

Through the years, studies and case reports have shown benefits to spending time with a therapy dog. For example, a 2001 study in the Journals of Gerontology: Series A found that therapy dogs helped residents in long-term care facilities feel less lonely. In addition, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing found that patients with chronic heart failure were more apt to participate in a form of walking therapy if they were able to walk with a dog.

“I’ve seen some pretty remarkable changes in patients’ demeanor when Rackley enters the room,” Gertner says.

As a mother of four, Gertner knows children need affection. However, the dogs aren’t just “medicine” for kids. Adults stroke Rackley’s fur and talk about their own pets. When Rackley walks down the hallway, nurses and doctors look up from their charts and smile. Gertner likes to bring Rackley to the surgery waiting room, too, where families sometimes spend hours waiting for a loved one to come out of surgery.

“It’s not just the patients that we go to see,” Gertner said. “It’s everyone in the hospital.”

So she bathes Rackley before each visit, ties the pup’s signature blue bandana around her neck, fastens on their nametags and heads to the hospital. The duo usually spends anywhere from three to five hours seeing patients during each visit.

“Of all the volunteer opportunities I have ever been associated with, my pet therapy work has been the most rewarding,” Gertner said. “I’d come every day if I could.”