Pet Therapy Brings Peace to Patient Experience

Hospice Foundation-Funded Program Allows Pet Visits

By the time Mary Ann Luedtke lost her sister-in-law to cancer in November, she had already said goodbye to four other family members through hospice.

“I have been very thankful to the hospice program for what they have done for my family,” said Luedtke, a horse farm manager from the Winnebago County Town of Zittau. Luedtke decided it was time to give back, and getting her 3-year-old boxer Chloe certified as a pet therapy dog seemed like a natural fit.

“She is so in tune with who hurts and what hurts, and seems to think, ‘I can be a goofball with this person because they’re sturdy, but I have to be careful with this person, because they’re not,’” Luedtke said. Chloe herself has been through the healing process, suffering a spiral fracture to a hind leg as a puppy, adapting quickly to walking on three legs while her wound healed.

Thanks to the generosity of donors, ThedaCare At Home Hospice launched the pet therapy volunteer program in 2016 through a grant from the ThedaCare Hospice Foundation. That program eventually led to visits to ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center, ThedaCare Behavioral Health and ThedaCare alcohol and other drug abuse recovery services.

Donor dollars help get the dogs trained and certified with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Dogs are required to undergo behavioral evaluations and make three practice visits to places like nursing homes and hospitals, and they must be current on all vaccinations, veterinary visits and be well-groomed on visit days.

In 2017, pet therapy volunteers offered more then 315 hours of direct patient visits and another 298 hours of community visits in Waupaca, Shawano and the Fox Cities. Visits from friendly animals can help reduce feelings of depression, isolation and alienation; decreasing anxiety and inducing an automatic relaxation response; and encouraging communication.

Luedtke has seen Chloe make this happen several times, including when they visited a man near the end of his life who had become non-verbal. “Chloe just put her paw up so he could hold it, and I could hear him saying very softly, ‘Good dog,’” Luedtke said. “Boxers are a high-energy breed, but she is very still with patients and positions her body so they can touch her.”

Generous community donations of time, talents and financial contributions help the ThedaCare Hospice Foundation support the pet therapy program, which contributes to the hospital system’s mission of improving patient experience and the health of our communities. Additionally, volunteerism like Luedtke’s and Chloe’s further enhance the legacy of Theda Clark Peters, who dreamed of a better life and better health for people in Northeast Wisconsin.

Luedtke said Chloe’s highly intuitive and adaptive behavior has made her a key asset to the pet therapy program. “I always tell my husband that I wish he could see what Chloe does,” Luedtke said. “I’m just the fortunate one to go along with her and watch her do it.”

To learn more about the ThedaCare Family of Foundations and the impact of donor support, or make a donation, please visit www.thedacare.org/Foundations or email Foundations@thedacare.org. 

ThedaCare at Home is currently recruiting for pet therapists in all ThedaCare service areas. If you and your dog are interested in volunteering, contact Molly Johnson at 920.716.1890 or mjohnson@caninecomfort.us.

For more than 100 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to finding a better way to deliver serious and complex healthcare to patients throughout Northeast Wisconsin. The organization serves over 200,000 patients annually and employs more than 6,800 healthcare professionals throughout the region. ThedaCare has seven hospitals located in Appleton, Neenah, Berlin, Waupaca, Shawano, New London and Wild Rose, as well as 31 clinics in nine counties and the ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center in Appleton. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving our specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a non-profit healthcare organization with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs as well as a foundation dedicated to community service.  For more information, visit www.thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on Facebook and Twitter.