How Pet Therapy Volunteers Help Patients Heal (podcast)

Scripps has 65 pet therapy volunteers that visit patients

l-r Rosemary Van Gorder, Scripps pet therapy volunteer and her dog Amber; Jill Sandman, volunteer manager at Scripps and Jojo; and San Diego Health host Susan Taylor discuss benefits of pet therapy.

l-r Rosemary Van Gorder, Scripps volunteer and her pet therapy dog Amber; Jill Sandman, Scripps volunteer manager and pet therapy dog JoJo and Susan Taylor, San Diego Health host

Scripps has 65 pet therapy volunteers that visit patients

Healing comes in many forms. At Scripps, teams of two- and four-legged volunteers help patients heal, physically and emotionally.

Pet therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes. Scripps’ canine volunteers have all passed the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen exam and are obedient, clean and friendly. Many patients are seen on a regular basis, so they have a chance to bond with therapy dogs and their handlers. These volunteers offer patients respite from the stresses that come with a hospital stay. Pet therapy dogs reduce anxiety and provide patients a welcome distraction from pain. Some doctors even prescribe pet therapy visits.

In this episode of San Diego Health, host Susan Taylor and guests Jill Sandman, manager of volunteer services for Scripps Health’s north region, and Rosemary Van Gorder, a longtime Scripps pet therapy volunteer, discuss the health care system’s volunteer program, the different roles volunteers play and how you can help.

Volunteers are often the first person you see when entering a Scripps facility. They’re members of our community and often, grateful patients. In 2018, 2,100 volunteers donated their time to Scripps. The system’s 65 pet therapy volunteers made more than 12,000 visits and donated more than 1,200 hours.

On average, volunteers work one, four-hour shift a week and canine volunteers usually spend about two hours with patients, so it’s pretty easy to work into your schedule. If you’d like to volunteer at Scripps, visit, pick a hospital or clinic, and apply. No health care experience is required.

Listen to the episode on how volunteers make a difference in patient care at Scripps

Listen to the episode on how volunteers make a difference in patient care at Scripps

Podcast highlights

What do volunteers do at Scripps? (1:04)

Sandman: We have a wonderful volunteer program. We have volunteers who come as canine therapy volunteers. But we have volunteers throughout the hospital and throughout our entire system. We have volunteers who come and support the nursing departments and the emergency room and the ICUs. A lot of times they’re an extra pair of legs and hands for our staff. We have volunteers who come in and do more clerical type duties that support our different offices and departments, our foundation and our marketing department.

We have volunteers who do really fun homemade crafting items. Every newborn at Scripps La Jolla gets a knitted hat. We have tray favors that go on the meal trays for our patients. There is a variety of ways to get involved as a volunteer at Scripps.


All our hospitals have volunteers at the information desk to greet you and to escort you throughout the hospital. Often they’re the first person that a patient sees, and often the last person that they see upon discharge.


In 2018, we had 2,100 volunteers contribute to our organization. Typically they do one four-hour shift a week. So it’s really manageable to fit into your life. We offer you a consistent schedule so you know the days that you volunteer. If your day is Monday noon to 4 pm, you can make that happen. Some people pick up additional shifts, and that’s quite all right. We welcome that.

Usually our canine therapy volunteers will come in for a two-hour shift. The dogs get pretty exhausted after an hour or two of walking around the whole hospital.

What training is needed to become a pet therapy volunteer at Scripps? (3:22)

Van Gorder: The therapy dogs at Scripps are all very obedient dogs. They’ve had to go through the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen exam. There’s a course they can take as well. But it’s a process that tests the dogs in 10 elements. One is being very friendly if they’re approached by a stranger. Are they friendly if they see another dog? Will they sit on command? Walk loosely on a leash? Walk around a crowded area?

In addition they need to be able to sit quietly for a three-minute separation from their owner. Though we’re not separated from our dogs on this shift, in case of emergencies, they need to be able to have a dog that will be reasonably calm away from their owner.

When they come into the hospital, they’re also evaluated. This process also uses a Canine Good Citizen 10-step program, and takes into consideration a lot of elements about the hospitals, such as going in and out an elevator, in and out of the doorways, being around moving objects like gurneys, beds, wheelchairs and IV poles. Even the beds moving up and down could be chaotic for an animal. We need to make sure that they can do that and be able to perform under all the stress of the hospital environment.


The main thing is they need to be friendly and outgoing. They can’t just be a robotic, obedient dog. It has to be a very friendly dog that can obey and behave during the whole time because they’re put under a lot of different stresses and circumstances.


The dogs are not just in hospitals. They’re also in other parts of the whole Scripps system, including the Radiation Oncology Center over at the Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center, where the patients are not in bed. They may be in the initial waiting room with their regular clothes on, waiting for their appointment. Dogs are in the lobby area there. When the patients go to the back to change into their gowns, there’s a small waiting area, not much bigger than this room, and the dogs are back there too. They can also go up on the garden roof to be with patients, but it’s primarily the waiting areas. And that’s been a really nice bonus to have the dogs there.

How do pet therapy teams benefit patients at Scripps? (6:04)

Van Gorder: I think they offer the patient a way to just stop being centered on themselves. It’s easy if you’re in the hospital to be feeling pain or to just be irritated or maybe it’s too cold or the food hasn’t come yet. Maybe they’re bored or they’re waiting for a family member, or they may be missing their own pet. That’s the other thing [a pet therapy visit] brings, a little bit of home if they’re dog owners. To walk in with a dog, for some people who didn’t know we had this program, they’re just amazed to see a dog walk in. I’ve been in situations where I walk by a room and the patient was on the cell phone, I didn't want to interrupt, and I heard this, “Wait. Wait, Wait, I’ll call you back. Come back with your dog! I didn’t know we had dogs here.”

Or maybe the patients have children who are visiting. The kids just can’t believe it. They might be in the waiting area. If it’s the intensive care unit and the kids are in the waiting area, to walk in with a dog just brings that bit of home to them.

How do pet therapy teams help staff members at Scripps? (8:33)

Van Gorder: The staff love seeing the animals. There are certain ones who know who’s coming on what day. Sometimes they have treats in the nurse’s stations to give to them.

Sandman: We have some physicians that will give us doctor orders for a patient. So we get an official slip from the physician saying that this patient needs canine therapy visits. It’s nice to have the support of our physicians and our staff. The staff really appreciate getting to see the dogs. Their jobs can be very difficult and they can have very stressful cases going on with the patients. So, having the dogs come in really help our staff too.


Van Gorder: When I initially started, I just thought it was pretty special to bring a dog in to volunteer and thought that was kind of unique. But what I ended up getting from it was just an amazing sense of respect and love for that animal after seeing what my animal could do for somebody. I think it’s nice to connect with people, and that your dog is the tool to connect. The patient might tell us something they need, for example, and we can go out to the nurse’s station and bring that up. It’s just one more person who goes in and interacts to help out that patient.

What safety precautions are taken with pet therapy dogs? (10:53)

Van Gorder: What I usually do as I’m just approaching the room is to quickly get a lay of the land. I see if the patient has an IV; what side of the bed that IV is on; if there’s a catheter bag; if the bed rails are next to the wall and where the chairs are in the room. I check everything to make it easier for me to go in and see that patient with my dog. If the IV is in the right arm, I might go around the bed to the other side so that they don’t have to worry about that.

It’s really important to know what the limitations are for that patient as well. If they’re in a splint or in traction, it’s important to know what would be the easier side of the bed to go on to see that patient. I also quickly look at the floor and check if there are any messy bandages on the floor, any medications and anything else. The dogs are trained to not pick up these items, but I still like to know so that I can pay attention to where these items might be.

All the dogs are required to have a bath within 24 hours of coming to volunteer, so that they are as germ-free as they can be. After seeing a patient, we offer hand sanitizer for that patient. Some people bring dog wipes and wipe down their dog afterward. I make it a habit when I go home to wash her.

The dogs are required to have annual physicals and have their immunizations up to date. The vets also have to screen not just for the physical issues a dog might have, but the emotional. As dogs get older they might get a little more nippy or just a little more crotchety and not want to do the work. All our dogs have our vets signing out that they’re emotionally and physically able to do the job.


Sandman: Letitia Olais is our volunteer coordinator and our canine therapy coordinator for the system. We have currently 65 volunteer, or canine therapy volunteers. She works with them to bring them on with the onboarding. All our volunteers will attend orientation. They’ll be evaluated. We make sure that the environment is right for that dog and that dog handler. Sometimes the dog is great but the hospital environment is not for them. We make sure that they are safe to be in the hospital.

Can patients snuggle with pet therapy dogs? (13:59)

Van Gorder: It all depends. If the patient is able to have the dog snuggle in bed, then yes, it’s okay. The bed needs to be covered with either a towel or a sheet. So the bed has to be protected. The volunteer knows where to get that, and how to remove that piece of linen as well. It just depends on the dog. Not every dog wants to come up on a bed and cuddle. Other dogs are really good at it. Some are better just being held by the owner. I’ve had cardiac patients who are going for walks around the floor, and they just want us to walk with them.

Why are volunteers so important at Scripps? (15:20)

Sandman: Our volunteers are our community members. They’re also a lot of times grateful patients. The history of hospitals is completely rooted in volunteerism. It really is where hospitals started. It’s part of our culture. It is definitely part of Scripps culture. We are very fortunate to have all our leadership really respect volunteers. In fact, many of them are volunteers themselves, not necessarily with Scripps but with other organizations. What our volunteers learn is also very beneficial to them personally. These could be our future health care providers. By us supporting them in their endeavors, in their education and potentially in them becoming a physician or a nurse, we’re giving back to our future.

How do you become a volunteer at Scripps? (16:23)

Sandman: Visit our website at

It’s very helpful if you know which site, which hospital you’d like to volunteer at, or if it’s a clinic. It’s good for you to know what’s going to be the easiest for you to get to. Where would you be able to go on a weekly basis. Based on that, the Scripps website can guide you to that email or a phone number to call. And then we’ll connect you.

Usually the next steps are filling out an application and attending an orientation. You don’t have to have any experience in health care. Not all positions are directly related in health care. So even if you’re somebody that’s like “I was a teacher my whole life. I don’t really see myself doing anything with health care,” we still got a position for you. We can place anyone. We’ll find what works for you. We just want to know that you can connect with people, that you have a goal to get something out of your volunteer experience and give back to the community.


We do have an area on the website that specifically talks about canine therapy, and Letitia Olais, who is our coordinator, will interact with you. Before we get you through the onboarding, we want to make sure that this is a good fit for you.

We generally start with the evaluation. Canine Good Citizen is the prerequisite that you need. If you’re interested and you don’t know how to tap into that, Letitia can also guide you on how to take that course. Additionally the dogs do need to be over a year old.


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