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Dog Cuddles Can Be the Best Medicine

September 12, 2022
There is a reason cute dog photos and funny cat videos trend online. An animal can have a calming effect on a person’s mood and overall outlook. Scientific studies over decades have proven that a dog’s presence as a therapeutic technique for hospital patients can reduce anxiety, improve wellbeing and even alleviate pain.

For more than 15 years, GBMC and the National Capital Therapy Dog (NCTD) program have worked together to bring in teams (one dog, one handler) to visit with patients. Former GBMC speech pathologist, Sandra Lumpkin, originally established the partnership and passed it along to Barbara Laricos in 2011.

“I love dogs,” Barb said, “and I always thought it just sounded like a wonderful thing to be able to do, to take the dog that you love and bring so much joy and comfort to share with other people.”

Barb's first dog, Lizzie
Barb's first dog, Lizzie, a fan favorite
Each visit is individualized to meet patient needs. Hand sanitizer is used before and after for infection control, and the dog follows the patient’s lead. For some, a quick cuddle does the trick while for others, an extended session complete with a bed cuddle is what is needed. Barb’s first dog, Lizzie passed away in 2016, and her current dog, Cassi, doesn’t visit as frequently. But Barb’s work with the GBMC volunteer office does not go unnoticed.

“We couldn’t do the program without Barb,” Carmen Baeza, Director of Volunteer Services at GBMC, said. “She knows the ins and outs. She does the training, and she really can tell when the dog and the handler are a good fit and where they will be a good fit.”

The process to volunteer as a therapy dog team is simple but extensive. Prospective volunteers reach out to either the NCTD or, GBMC’s newest partner, Pet Partners, to receive certification. They then need to go through GBMC volunteer onboarding before Barb mentors them through a rotation in the hospital.

Though the process could take a while, it is worth it.

“Every visit feels worthwhile, but every once in a while, you get someone where you think, that’s why I was there today,” Barb said. “When I was visiting Unit 54, there was an older gentleman who had a stroke, and he was there for rehabilitation. The two family members with him said he hadn’t been speaking since the stroke. I’m talking to them while the man slowly pets the dog and all of a sudden he says, ‘Lizzie, Lizzie.’”

Every team has a similar experience to share. Pam Goode and her dog, Maverick, had been volunteering since 2005 until Maverick retired when COVID-19 hit. But in 2021, they were called back on a special assignment.

“Mav and I were asked to come in and visit the nurses and staff who were so stressed and overworked throughout COVID,” Pam said. “I jumped at that opportunity because I wanted to do something nice for the nurses who had given so much of themselves to their patients. They were so appreciative to meet, pet and cuddle with Maverick, and I was proud we could help in some small way.”

Barb and Carmen both recall overhearing a nurse tell her colleague how impactful having a dog visit was to her, that since having a break to cuddle and play with a dog, she felt she could tackle the rest of her day.

Volunteer Karis Brown, who has been volunteering since 2018 with her dog, Chester, said it best, “Despite the positive external presentation a patient or staff member may give, there could be bad news or a heck of day that lies underneath. The dogs know how to penetrate that with their unwavering love and happy disposition. Just that look, stroke of their fur or the snuggle is often the unspoken comfort one needs."

If you are interested in becoming a therapy dog team, please call 443-849-2050 or email volunteers@gbmc.org.
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