Kyle, St. Anthony Hospital’s first official therapy dog, has a dream job, a bit on the cushy side.

The one-year-old Labrador retriever spends much of his work shift getting ear rubs and head massages.

On a recent day, Kyle and his handler, Emily Smith, walked purposefully along the hospital’s main corridor on their way to visit a patient.

Kyle is new at his job. Sometimes his attention wanders. On the way to the room, the dog paused with tail wagging to inspect his reflection in a glass wall. Smith gently urged him on.

“You’re here to work,” she reminded Kyle, who doubles as the Smith’s family dog.

After checking in at the nurses’ station, the pair approached Harry Kuhlmann’s room.

Smith, a nurse who works in the hospital’s education department, opened the door and peeked inside. Kuhlmann, sporting a hospital gown and oxygen tubes, sat in a chair. He had been expecting the dog. Smith checks in with each patient in advance to ask if he or she would like a visit.

When Kuhlmann saw Kyle, a smile bloomed on the elderly man’s face. The dog looked up at the patient expectantly. Therapy dogs are trained to let patients direct each encounter. Kyle will do everything from letting the patient pet him to jumping onto the bed and snuggling in.

Kuhlmann leaned forward and let his hands caress the dog’s glossy black fur.

“You’re a good boy,” he told Kyle. “You like this?”

It seemed that Kyle did. But what’s not to like?

Despite the seemingly carefree nature of the encounters, Smith said such visits can tire a dog. Kyle currently works one session (from one to several patients) per week, but will slowly increase his workload. Eventually, he will accompany hospital chaplain Rick Oliver on rounds.

After each session, Smith guides Kyle outside to the expansive hospital lawn and plays fetch with a tennis ball to satisfy the dog’s need to run and play.

The idea of bringing pet therapy to St. Anthony patients came from a consultant hired by the hospital.

Smith said the consultant suggested a program that brings therapy pets around to patients and also let patients have visits from their own dogs.

Studies suggest that the presence of an animal has a calming effect. A 2009 study found that children with cancer who interacted with therapy dogs had a reduction in pain. The dogs also help decrease fear, provide distraction, increase pleasure and improve quality of life. Other studies found that time with a therapy dog decreased blood pressure and heart rate and brought other positive biological responses.

“Pet therapy improves the patient experience,” Smith said.

The St. Anthony Hospital Foundation board supported the idea of a hospital therapy dog, and when Smith suggested her own black lab puppy as a possible candidate, agreed to give him a try, funding a month of therapy dog training in Grants Pass.

“I knew he had the right personality,” Smith said. “He’s so sweet and is super-calm for a one-year old.”

In Grants Pass, trainer Jill Breitner works with one dog at a time. Known professionally as the She Whisperer, she eased Kyle into his new role, at first just playing and bonding. Breitner taught the puppy manners while taking pains not to squelch his natural enthusiasm for people.

Eventually, she took Kyle to a nearby convalescent home once, sometimes twice, a day.

“Everyone there fell in love with him,” Breitner said.

One woman in particular, an Alzheimer’s patient, lit up when she saw the dog.

“She would sit in a recliner and invite him up into her lap,” Breitner said. “He would stare into her eyes. She would cry tears of joy while holding him.”

During the visits, Breitner would watch for signs of stress such as panting, but the dog seemed simultaneously calm and enthusiastic.

“The more you touch him, the more joy he has,” she said.

Smith said having Kyle gone for a month was hard, but Breitner made it easier by setting up FaceTime sessions between Kyle and his family. She texted Smith every day about the dog’s progress.

Back in Pendleton, Kyle got down to business as an official hospital volunteer. Before each session, Smith ties a blue bandanna bearing Kyle’s name around his neck and clips his official photo ID to his collar. Smith makes sure he gets to the right room and monitors the interaction.

“If he gets distracted, I redirect his attention to the patient,” she said.

The response from the patients has been gratifying.

“They are smiling and happy,” Smith said. “Sometimes people tear up.”

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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