How Pet Therapy Volunteers Benefit Patients (video)

Pet therapy dogs and their owners help patients heal

Pet therapy dogs and their owners help patients heal


Hospital volunteers can support a patient’s recovery and healing in many ways, from helping the medical staff and assisting visitors to making handmade gifts for patients. In fact, some of the cutest volunteers are pet therapy dogs who help patients feel better simply by walking in and wagging their tails.


In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Jill Sandman, manager of volunteer services for the North Region at Scripps, and Rosemary Van Gorder, who’s been a Scripps Pet Therapy Program volunteer since 2007. Therapy dogs Amber and Jojo listened in as they discussed the valuable physical and emotional benefits both human and dog volunteers bring to patients.

How do hospital volunteers help?

Scripps has more than 2,000 volunteers who provide a wide variety of important services throughout Scripps hospitals.


“Our volunteers greet visitors at the information desk, do clerical duties and support the nursing departments and emergency rooms. They often serve as an extra pair of hands for staff,” explains Sandman. Volunteers are matched with duties that fit their skills and interests, she adds. “Some do really fun crafting items. For example, every newborn at Scripps La Jolla gets a knitted hat.”


In 2007, Scripps introduced the Pet Therapy Program. Volunteers in the program bring their dogs to visit patients in their hospital rooms or take walks with them around the unit. Some physicians will even “prescribe” pet therapy visits for their hospitalized patients.

Rx: Dog therapy

“Often, patients are apprehensive or stressed or in pain, or just missing their home or even their own pet,” says Van Gorder. “And then they’re just amazed to see a dog walk in, and they’re excited. I think the dogs offer the patient a break from being centered on themselves and their health, even just for a little while. And if kids are visiting or in the waiting room, they just can’t believe there’s a dog in the hospital.”


If the patient wants to pet or cuddle with the dog, the hospital volunteer can place a towel on the bed for smaller dogs like Jojo. Larger dogs can sit on a chair next to the bed.


At Scripps, dog volunteers are not just in the hospitals. They also visit patients at other facilities, such as the Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center, where they greet patients in the waiting areas or on the garden rooftop.


“That’s really rewarding because many patients come on a regular basis for treatment and form a relationship with the pet therapy teams,” Sandman says.

Pet therapy has proven benefits

Clinical studies prove that animal therapy has many health benefits. American Heart Association researchers found that spending just 12 minutes with a dog helped lower blood pressure, reduces the release of harmful stress hormones and decreases anxiety among hospitalized heart failure patients.


Other studies found that animal therapy can reduce the need for medication, decrease pain levels, lower anxiety, promote the release of mood-enhancing hormones and reduce feelings of loneliness. The visits can help speed healing, which may mean patients can go home sooner.

Pet therapy dogs must pass the test

Before they interact with patients, all therapy dogs at Scripps complete a rigorous evaluation to ensure they’re a good fit for the job.


“They need to be friendly and outgoing, but still well-behaved and obedient because they’re put under a lot of different stresses and circumstances,” says Sandman. “They’re around a lot of moving objects like gurneys and wheelchairs, and in and out of elevators. We need to make sure they are comfortable in the hospital environment.”


Scripps therapy dogs complete the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen exam, which evaluates each dog on 10 aspects. This includes friendliness, obedience and behavior around people and other dogs. In addition, all dog volunteers must be up to date on vaccinations and have an annual physical.


“The veterinarian screens for both physical and emotional issues,” explains Van Gorder. “Sometimes as dogs get older they get a little more crotchety or don’t want to do the job. Our vet makes sure the dogs are still suited for the work.”


Scripps requires all dog volunteers to be bathed within 24 hours of a visit. Patients are offered hand sanitizer after canine visits.

Owners benefit too

Patients aren’t the only ones who benefit from the pet therapy program at Scripps. Van Gorder says volunteering with Amber is a rewarding experience that has strengthened her bond with her dog.


“It’s a great opportunity to be able to bring my dog when I leave the house to go to the hospital,” she says. “When I first started, I thought it was pretty special to bring a dog in to volunteer. But I also ended up with an amazing sense of respect and love for her when I see what my household pet could do for somebody.”


The four-legged volunteers work like, well, dogs. In 2018, the pet therapy teams made 12,000 visits and logged about 2,700 hours. Both the volunteer dogs and their humans are an important part of Scripps’ culture.

Volunteer opportunities at Scripps

Volunteers in general provide service to patients, families, staff and the community in various positions inside and outside of Scripps hospitals.


“Anyone over age 15 can be a volunteer. You don’t need health care experience. We’ll find what works for you,” says Sandman. “What’s most important is that you want to connect with people and give back to the community.”


Visit the Scripps website and learn how to become a volunteer at Scripps.