Puppy love: Once abandoned, a dogged canine now comforts hospital patients

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Kim Maxey peeks around the corner of a patient’s room on the Hume-Lee Transplant unit in Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. She knocks lightly on the door.

“Would you like a visitor?” she asks Paul Bennett, who is reclining on a chair alone in the dimly lit room.

When he indicates that he would, Maxey enters the room, but Bennett’s gaze quickly lowers to Maxey’s companion. A golden retriever named Scrappy nudges his nose into Bennett’s outstretched hand and wags his tail in approval when Bennett scratches behind his ears.

As one of almost 40 therapy dogs in the VCU Medical Center Dogs on Call program, Scrappy visits patients in the hospital every week, stopping along the way to accept the affectionate attention of the staff members and caregivers he encounters in the hallway. Research through the VCU Center for Human-Animal Interaction demonstrates that the presence of Scrappy and other therapy dogs reduces fear, anxiety and depression among those who interact with them. Research also shows that short visits with therapy dogs trigger positive effects on physiological patterns such as blood pressure and heart rate.

“We know how therapeutic the dogs are,” says Sandra Barker, Ph.D., director of the VCU School of Medicine’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction, which oversees Dogs on Call.

Often the dogs will visit patients who have pets of their own. After Bennett told nurses about missing his long-haired Chihuahua named Peanut, they knew he would benefit from a therapy dog visit. As Bennett pets Scrappy, the 12-year-old dog stares directly into his eyes. “You always wonder what a dog is thinking when he’s looking at you,” Bennett says.

Seeing Bennett with bandages covering his throat and IV needles in his hands, Scrappy might be remembering a time when he was in a similar situation. The 87-pound dog has a healthy coat and appears lively now, but it’s a stark contrast to his appearance when Maxey discovered him chained in a backyard in Richmond’s South Side almost eight years ago.

“He’s so laid-back,” Maxey says. “We say it’s because of what he went through.”

Dog years

Scrappy after his fall 2007 surgery, which left him with 100 stitches.
Scrappy after his fall 2007 surgery, which left him with 100 stitches.

In July 2007, Scrappy was caught in the middle of a divorce.

Maxey’s neighbors had owned Scrappy together, but after the divorce they both left Richmond, and Scrappy was left chained to a tree in the backyard. A young boy who lived across the street was supposed to feed him, but Scrappy was left outside for weeks without an adult to make sure he was being properly cared for.  

One day late that summer, Maxey’s husband suggested they take a walk to the neighbor’s house to check on the dog. What they found behind the fence was a wet, skinny animal with thick, matted fur and flies swarming around him.

“It was hot and we’d had a lot of rain that summer,” Maxey said. “He was a mess.”

Maxey untied Scrappy and walked him to her house to give him a bath. That’s when she realized he was sick and needed to be seen by a veterinarian.

Without hesitation, Maxey put Scrappy in the car and drove him to Midlothian Animal Clinic.

The vet took one look at him and said, ‘What have you done to this dog?’

“The vet took one look at him and said, ‘What have you done to this dog?’” Maxey said. “He was so angry that anybody would let a dog get that sick.”

Scrappy was infested with parasites, and his skin was severely damaged. His internal organs were also seriously weakened. He was near death and in terrible pain. There were questions about his ability to survive much longer, even with intense care. Maxey considered whether putting Scrappy to sleep was the humane choice, but decided against it, convinced that he was determined to keep going.

Scrappy stayed at the animal clinic for a week while veterinarians provided initial treatment. In the fall, he underwent surgery, which required 100 stitches. His hair didn’t grow back until Christmas. Eventually, however, he made a full recovery and completed his remarkable transformation. By fighting through the obstacles that had confronted him, he had earned his name, all while enchanting his new family with his good-natured demeanor.

“He was so good when we were nursing him back to health,” Maxey said. “He’d just stand there and let us do whatever we needed to do. He’s been through a lot.”

Scrappy’s calm and caring disposition made him a great fit for the therapy dog program at VCU, which recruits dogs that are predictable, reliable and well-trained.

A new leash on life

A certified therapy dog, Scrappy has been visiting patients at St. Mary’s Hospital for the past six years. He also works at Chester Library’s Read 2 Rover program, where children learning to read practice by reading to him on Tuesday afternoons.

After Maxey retired from teaching middle school math in Chesterfield County in June last year, she started bringing him to VCU Medical Center. She first shadowed a therapy rotation with a veteran Dogs on Call dog and then practiced visiting patients with Scrappy under the supervision of a volunteer services program coordinator. Scrappy was officially registered as a Dog on Call in November.

It makes a patient’s day to have a visit from one of the dogs.

Gilda Sneed, a transplant coordinator who works on the unit where Bennett stayed, sees the positive effects that the therapy dogs have on her patients every week. “It makes a patient’s day to have a visit from one of the dogs,” Sneed said.

In one CHAI-led study that measured patients’ anxiety level prior to electroconvulsive therapy, a short visit with a therapy dog resulted in a 37 percent reduction in fear prior to the procedure.

“That’s a significant difference,” Barker said.

It’s the kind of evidence that shows the CHAI is fulfilling its mission of improving health and well-being through human-animal interaction. The academic center’s research has been published in peer-reviewed journals including the Journal of Mental Health Counseling and the International Journal of Business Communication. Its education component encompasses VCU School of Medicine electives, continuing education for professionals and community education. In addition to Dogs on Call, the CHAI provides pet loss support counseling in the community.

Man’s best friend

Walking through VCU Medical Center on a January afternoon almost eight years after being near death, Scrappy is treated like a celebrity. As he traipses through the halls, he turns his bright face to everyone he sees and they smile back, often stopping to pet him and say hello.

 “The benefit goes beyond just our patients,” Barker says. In a study on hospital staff members who visited with therapy dogs, researchers found a significant reduction in physiological indicators of stress after just a five-minute visit.

“It’s as much therapy for us as it is for the patients,” Sneed says, hugging Scrappy around his neck. While she talks, a crowd of doctors and nurses gather for a chance to pet Scrappy. He patiently greets each person, wagging his tail as he is scratched behind his ears and kissed on his head.

“It’s special to see what such a quick visit will do,” Maxey says. “It warms your heart.”


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