A Dog's Tale

by Lauren Crawford
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One day, it happened on the way back from the dog run. Anna stopped in the crowded hospital hallway, wagged her tail, and brought her handler’s attention to a small child and her family. The Rev. Lindsay Bona, Anna’s handler and the manager of Michigan Medicine’s Spiritual Care Department, knew immediately that Anna needed to say hello. After inviting the 3-year-old golden retriever over, the child’s parents explained that they could all use some extra care; they had just checked their daughter in for treatment.

Anna with a gift from a special patient.
Anna with a gift from a special patient.

“Anna can sense when somebody needs her,” Bona says. “She knew that little patient needed some love.”

That preternatural talent is why Anna — named, like the rest of her litter, after Frozen characters — is one of two full-time therapy dogs at Michigan Medicine. For the past two years, she and her canine co-worker, Denver (whose handler, Joel Maier, is a certified child and family life specialist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital), have been warming hearts, dispelling stress, and offering much-appreciated companionship.

Since 1987, Michigan Medicine worked with Therapaws of Michigan to bring in comfort animals on volunteer bases. After it became clear that patients, families, faculty, and even staff benefited from the interactions, however, the thinking started to shift: Perhaps it would be advantageous to have dogs on hospital grounds every day — as “employees,” so to speak. Thus, with help from the Laurence Polatsch Memorial Fund, the hospital’s bespoke animal therapy program was born and named Paws4Patients.

Anna and Bona see numerous patients all across the health system, some of whom receive specific referrals (Anna has her own patient list), and some they encounter at random, like the little girl in the hallway. Denver, also a 3-year-old golden retriever, works with Maier exclusively in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, owing to his laidback personality. “Denver is a lay-here-and-love-me kind of dog,” Bona says, “whereas Anna is get-up-and-go; we go to pediatrics, we go to the emergency rooms, we go to short-stay units, and we do a lot of pet therapy in the hallways.”

That’s why Bona, also manager of Paws4Patients, builds in a 15-minute cushion around all of her appointments and meetings. Sometimes, Anna will meet someone she needs to comfort, and Bona — because of the special bond they share — understands that their immediate to-do list has to be put on hold for a little while.

“I might have one agenda, where we have to get to a meeting, but she’ll sense that somebody needs something, and, knowing her, I know they need her right at that moment.”

Denver hangs out with some survival flight crewmembers.
Denver hangs out with some Survival Flight crewmembers.

A quick but meaningful visit often turns a difficult day into something very special. Besides lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety, dogs have a way of teasing out things caregivers and even family might not be able to, Bona says. With Anna’s help, she has seen patients begin to think — and react — in completely new ways.

“There was one patient in the adult psychiatric unit who opened up to me about what hope looked like because of Anna. The patient never would have asked for spiritual care, but the two of us petting Anna — she ended up being a conduit to provide that care.”

Bona is aware that what Anna and Denver evoke is something unique. When they walk into a room, there’s no pressure, no unease, no uncertainty; they're just two cuddly pups looking to make new friends. What they provide that’s so special is a part of themselves: a “wonderful, wonderful giving” of love.

To learn more about Anna and Denver — and see their everyday adventures — visit the Paws4Patients Instagram page, or read about animal therapy at Michigan Medicine.

Photos courtesy of Paws4Patients.