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Harry Is a Patient's Best Friend: Therapy Dog Breaks Down Barriers

  • VNA physical therapist Kathy Everest and Harry, her miniature poodle, check in with Hospice patient Joan Evans, a resident at Woodcrest Village in New London. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    VNA physical therapist Kathy Everest and Harry, her miniature poodle, check in with Hospice patient Joan Evans, a resident at Woodcrest Village in New London. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Waldo Grover, a resident at Woodcrest Village in New London, stops to say hello to Harry as Harry’s owner, VNA physical therapist Kathy Everest, was on her way to visit patients. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Waldo Grover, a resident at Woodcrest Village in New London, stops to say hello to Harry as Harry’s owner, VNA physical therapist Kathy Everest, was on her way to visit patients. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kathy Everett lets her miniature poodle Harry say hello to Waldo Grover at Woodcrest Village in New London. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Kathy Everett lets her miniature poodle Harry say hello to Waldo Grover at Woodcrest Village in New London. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • VNA physical therapist Kathy Everest and Harry, her miniature poodle, check in with Hospice patient Joan Evans, a resident at Woodcrest Village in New London. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Waldo Grover, a resident at Woodcrest Village in New London, stops to say hello to Harry as Harry’s owner, VNA physical therapist Kathy Everest, was on her way to visit patients. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Kathy Everett lets her miniature poodle Harry say hello to Waldo Grover at Woodcrest Village in New London. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

New London — Joan Evans had never been much of a dog person.

Yet, one recent Wednesday, she was in her bed at Woodcrest Village, an assisted living facility in New London, stroking the soft black curls on a 4-year-old miniature poodle named Harry.

“Everybody’s a Harry fan,” said Evans, a Woodcrest resident.

Harry relaxed beside Evans, who is 87, leaning against her leg as Kathy Everest ran through a list of questions. Everest is a physical therapist with the Lake Sunapee Region VNA & Hospice. She asked Evans whether she had been doing her leg exercises to help her get up and walking again. Evans admitted she didn’t enjoy the exercises, but she kept smiling. Harry was looking up at her and craning his neck as she stroked his fur.

Harry is a therapy dog, one of the tens of thousands of animals throughout the U.S. that are used in health care settings to comfort patients as they heal. Studies have suggested that interactions with therapy dogs can increase levels of oxytocin and dopamine in patients, hormones that trigger feelings of happiness. Therapy dogs have also been shown to reduce stress.

“There’s a sense of happiness and bonding that we think is really important,” said Scott Fabry, the president of the Lake Sunapee Region VNA. “(Patients) feel this good interaction from a therapeutic perspective, and you can get enhanced gains (in treatment) when the animal is present.”

Not to be confused with service dogs, which are specifically trained to aid a person with a disability, the term therapy dog applies to animals who simply comfort patients with their gentle presence.

Generally, such dogs must have some on-leash obedience training, must be well-behaved, social with people and remain calm in new situations and with distractions, according to Therapy Dogs of Vermont, a Williston-based nonprofit that evaluates, trains, and places therapy dogs and their owners with clients throughout the Twin States, New York and Canada.

Everest never intended to have Harry become a therapy dog. But when she got him as an 8-week old puppy four years ago, he soon bewcame more than her pet — Harry became her professional partner.

“I was just bringing him to work because he was a puppy,” Everest said. “And now, he’s the VNA dog.”

Indeed, everyone in the VNA’s New London offices seemed to know Harry, who roamed freely in the lobby and quietly greeted visitors who came through the door. He has become something of an office mascot, said Brenda Cooper, the VNA’s front desk associate.

“He basically gives therapy to all of us, not just the patients,” Cooper said.

Not every person is comfortable with dogs, and Everest said she always lets patients ask to see him, never presuming that she could just walk into their homes or rooms with Harry.

He is invited inside for roughly half of all Everest’s visits with patients. There have even been times when he has opened up connections with resistant clients. Once, the VNA’s medical social worker was having trouble convincing a client to let her inside. When the social worker offered to come with Harry, the client accepted, Everest said.

“Somehow the dogs break down that barrier,” she said.

Everest said she is now known by clients as the “therapist with the dog.”

Harry has made friends everywhere Everest visits, and has even been mentioned in obituaries, she said.

Helen Tucker is among Harry’s fans.

The 73-year-old New London resident is bound to a wheelchair. She broke her leg several years ago and has trouble straightening it. She also has a neuromuscular disease.

Tucker already has a dog of her own, a large yellow Labrador Retriever named Moose. But she likes Everest to bring Harry to appointments, just so she can watch the two dogs play. She even allows Harry onto her bed.

Harry may not provide physical therapy to Tucker — that’s Everest’s job. But she nevertheless takes comfort in seeing him.

“You know he likes you and you feel kind of good that he likes you, and that he gets up on the bed and feels at home,” Tucker said. “He brings a little bit of joy and warmth and friendship.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.