Pet Therapy Program lifts spirits at McLaren Greater Lansing

Dogs are known for their unconditional love, and the canine members of McLaren Greater Lansing’s Pet Therapy Program have been dispensing their affection to patients, their family members, and staff across the hospital since November.

Therapy dogs have been visiting the Geriatric Psychiatry Unit at McLaren Orthopedic Hospital since 1994, but this is the first time McLaren Greater Lansing has had dogs and their handlers making rounds at both hospitals.

“Dogs are the only medication whose side effects are all positive,” said Claire Capra Sleep, a longtime respiratory therapist at McLaren Greater Lansing and a driving force behind the creation of the two-campus Pet Therapy Program.

Capra Sleep began volunteering with the program at the Geriatric Psychiatry unit shortly after its inception because she wanted to help dogs bring comfort to a population that is “often forgotten.” After watching dogs there make a positive connection with patients who frequently suffer from dementia, she was confident they could be equally comforting to patients, family members, and staff throughout the hospital.

Capra Sleep felt strongly that the program would make patients’ stays less stressful, but added “it’s as much for the staff as it is for the patients.”

The positive vibes dogs can bring out in people was obvious when Cooper, an 85-pound goldendoodle, made a visit to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). It wasn’t long before doctors, nurses, and other staff members gathered around him, laughing and talking while petting him. All the attention led to a patient nearby asking if Cooper could visit him, which he did.

A poignant scene took place on another day in the Emergency Department when a patient in a bed reached out with her cane to draw back the curtain so she could see Sophie, a 45-pound golden retriever.

There was also the time when Julie Potter and Laurie Hoopingarner, registered nurses at the Orthopedic Hospital, greeted Abby, a 45-pound mix of poodle and Australian shepherd, with smiles and hugs before she made her rounds.

The outpouring of affection prompted a gentleman sitting in the nearby waiting area to say, “What a job. You just go around and everybody loves you.”

Laird Eddie of Lansing, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, was one of the patients Abby visited. Eddie grew up with cats in his house, but a 10-pound mutt affectionately known as Rat befriended him during his tour of duty in Vietnam from 1967-68. Rat was killed when he wandered into a minefield, but Eddie was hooked on the benefits of having a dog, and has owned several since, including 185-pound and 165-pound St. Bernards that served as therapy dogs with him as their handler.

“Dogs have the ability to understand people,” he said. “They just know when people need love. Their attitude is, I’m not judging you. Good. Bad. Or indifferent. I’m here for you.”

However, not every dog is cut out to be a therapy animal.

A dog must possess an even-keeled temperament, among other qualities, to become certified by Therapy Dogs International (TDI). Dogs must remain calm in different surroundings, around children, and amongst unfamiliar dogs. They must also enjoy – not just tolerate – interacting with people they have never met.

Dogs that have bitten someone, been trained for basic obedience with a shock collar, or are less than a year old are ineligible to take the 13-part TDI test to determine if they are qualified to be a certified therapy dog. Once certified, their owners must have them re-qualified each year, and provide proof that their rabies vaccination and state license are up to date.

The dogs’ handlers, who are usually their owners, also go through the testing, and are an integral part of the pet therapy experience. For the handlers make the rounds with the dogs, introduce them, and carry on conversations with the patients and family members they are visiting.

Jean Delude never owned a dog until she and her husband Ed purchased Abby. She wanted to get Abby certified as a therapy dog because her late mother, Betty Coakley, lived in a nursing home many years ago and received regular visits from a golden retriever named Rex.

“It just made her day whenever Rex came around,” she said. “She would just talk and talk about how much she enjoyed seeing him.”

For sanitation reasons, there are places in the hospital where Abby, Cooper, Sophie, and other therapy dogs are prohibited. These include areas where food is prepared, medication is stored, medical instruments are sterilized, babies are delivered, and surgery is performed, as well as areas where patients with weakened immune systems are located.

Nine dogs are currently registered with the Pet Therapy Program, and each of them is certified by TDI. They and their handlers typically make rounds at the hospitals one day a week for one to two hours at a time. Rounds of more than two hours are considered overly taxing for a dog.

Numerous studies about the use of therapy dogs in hospitals have concluded that the interactions between dogs and humans can benefit both.

For example, studies in Veterinary Journal, as well as Frontiers in Psychology, state that the hormone oxytocin, which is regarded as an indicator of love or attachment, increases in both humans and dogs during positive interactions between them. Another study, published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, concluded that in terms of physical pain, the reduction was four times greater in children who received animal-assisted interactions or interventions (AAIs) than in those who relaxed for 15 minutes in a quiet room.

On a less scientific level, it’s easy to see the positive effect a dog can have on a patient when the dog lays its head on the person’s bed or in their lap so the person can pet them. Or when the patient’s demeanor becomes more upbeat as he or she pets a dog.

That’s what happened to Steven Horn of Lansing when Cooper paid a visit to him in the ICU.

“It just lifted his spirits, and helped take his mind off things for a little while,” said his daughter, Elizabeth. “The family benefitted too. It was nice to see everyone smiling again.”

Gina Garramone, Sophie’s handler, said it’s rewarding to know that a pet therapy visit can help people relax and forget about their worries.

“It’s hard to think about those things when you’re petting a dog,” she said. “Your mind tends to go to a happier place.”

To learn more, or if you would like to support the Pet Therapy Program at McLaren Greater Lansing, please call 517-975-7100, email, or visit