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Hospital visits from therapy dog brings smiles all around

Mike Haskey/mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.comNine-year-old Joshua Murray pets therapy dog Cooper on Wednesday at The Children's Hospital at Midtown Medical Center as Cooper's owner Nancy Nyswaner watches.
Mike Haskey/mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.comNine-year-old Joshua Murray pets therapy dog Cooper on Wednesday at The Children's Hospital at Midtown Medical Center as Cooper's owner Nancy Nyswaner watches. mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Nancy Nyswaner looked down at her white English Labrador Retriever and told him, "OK, Cooper, it is time to go to work."

A few minutes later, Cooper was at the bedside of 9-year-old Blanchard Elementary student Joshua Murray.

The ill boy was being treated at Midtown Medical Center in Columbus.

The 4-year-old, 125-pound Cooper put his large paw on the mattress and a wide grin quickly came to Joshua's face.

Nyswaner then pulled out a large bag of carrot slices and handed one to Joshua.

"Give it to him," she told the boy.

Using the arm which did not have an IV tube connected, Joshua did. And he laughed.

He then fed Cooper another one and another.

Cooper then left and headed toward another room, another sick child.

As he walked down the hall, nurses and other hospital workers came over to talk to him and deliver hugs.

Cooper and Nyswaner are among those involved locally with animal-assisted therapy. They are associated with the nonprofit organization CAREing Paws, which believes in enriching the lives of others by embracing the power of the human-animal bond. Those interested can visit www.careingpaws.org.

Cooper has his own business card, hospital photo identification badge and a vest on which there is a pin reading, "Please Pet Me."

"When the vest goes on, Cooper instinctively knows it is time to go to work. He really does," Nyswaner said.

The owner says the pediatric floor at Midtown is Cooper's favorite place to be.

He also makes appearances at the John. B. Amos Cancer Center in Columbus.

In LaGrange, Ga., he visits the Florence Hand Home, a nursing home and rehabilitation center.

"When the women there know he is coming, they get out of their bed and put makeup on," Nyswaner said.

But it is not just the ill or elderly Cooper helps.

At the Lagrange Memorial Library, he is involved in the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program.

"Children read to him. Reading aloud to Cooper boosts their confidence. He is not going to laugh if they make a mistake," Nyswaner said.

She admitted Cooper sometimes falls asleep.

"The children don't seem to mind," she remarked.

Nyswaner said dogs involved in animal-assisted therapy receive professional training. They are tested to see how they react to loud noises, wheelchairs, etc. The dogs must be well-groomed.

Cooper earned his "good canine citizenship certificate."

"We have been in a lot of situations, and I have never heard him growl," Nyswaner said. "I think he loves it. Dogs will let you know if they do not want to do something."

She knows because Cooper can be a "piece of work" at the Pine Mountain, Ga., home Cooper shares with Nyswaner and her husband, Bob.

"Cooper doesn't listen to a word I say at home," she said, laughing.

Cooper absolutely enjoys unplanting the flowers in her garden.

"I have to chase him," Nyswaner said.

For his therapy, Cooper goes for a daily swim in the lake.

Nyswaner feels strongly about the work she and Cooper do.

She had a son who died at age 21. He struggled with hemophilia.

"He spent his whole life in a hospital environment. I have been where these parents are. A hospital can be a scary place," Nyswaner said.

Studies, including one by the American Heart Association, have shown visits, as short as 12 minutes, with therapy dogs help reduce blood pressure and decreases anxiety in heart patients.

"It relieves stress," Nyswaner said.

She said Cooper's schedule is planned so he does not appear at the same time as other dogs, unless it is a special occasion such as a Halloween or Christmas party.

"It is a rewarding experience for us," Nyswaner said. "I love seeing happy faces."

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