Pet therapy lifts stress of illness

COLUMBIA—The expression “man’s best friend” has taken on new meaning at Providence Hospital. On Wednesdays John Schelble and his six-year-old, Annie, show up to provide therapy to willing patients.

Pet therapy that is, because Annie is a labradoodle. They are welcome volunteers at Providence in a quest to heal the whole person and provide emotional well-being to patients.

Schelble, a retired sales and marketing professional, and his family are members of St. Peter Church. He said he finds satisfaction in his new-found ministry rather than gardening or golf because these visits are not just an activity, but an opportunity to bring Christ to others.

“How you treat people is how you think of God,” he said, “so no matter how ungrateful or disagreeable a person may be, that obliges you to be as accepting, kind and patient as you can manage.”

He found his way into the ministry after fellow dog owners remarked that Annie was more than just a gentle canine. Hers is a special nature that impels her to approach and wag her tail at everyone and everything, without discrimination.

When friends persistently suggested that Annie’s obedience and social IQ would qualify her for certification as a “Good Canine Citizen,” Schelble brushed up on a few commands and presented her for the test, not expecting to pass it. The results proved him wrong.

On their typical rounds the duo will engage about 20 patients and as many visiting family, friends and staff. Some people have requested a visit in advance.

(Photo Provided) John Schelble and his labradoodle Annie are pet therapy volunteers at Providence Hospital in Columbia.Cindy Blakeney, a registered nurse and assistant vice-president of medical management, said the effects of pet therapy are phenomenal.

“Annie is just very accepting and loving,” she said.

It appears that the stress which inevitably accompanies illness evaporates for awhile in the wake of animal-assisted treatment. They receive an outpouring of contagious smiles, hugs, pats, and laughter.

Something about Annie’s fluffy coat and quiet energy next to Schelble’s respectful demeanor seems to invite trust at the patient’s door. Before entering a room, Schelble asks if the patient likes dogs and introduces Annie and himself as pet therapy volunteers.

Annie engages everyone and never barks in the hospital. Nurses, staff and doctors have been heard telling the dog that she also made their day.

On his drive to the hospital, Schelble prays that God will give each patient and person he encounters what they need through this contact.

“That might be better health, but it might just as well be more trust in God,” he said.

Overt spirituality is not a component of his visit. The exchanges remain on a neutral level, but may move toward a discreet comment, such as “I’ll pray for you.”

And he does. Annie’s best friend confided that his reaction is always gratitude. The best visits are “when they tell me something, their own dog stories of pets at home they are missing or used to have.”

It’s no wonder that this unique team so often obtains that restful, relaxed mood that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Kathleen Belinga is a member of St. Peter Church in Columbia.