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For these pet therapy pooches, every year is the year of the dog

They have been called “man’s best friend” and starred in TV shows and movies. But some dogs have a much more important role to play — helping families who have a loved one fighting through a cancer diagnosis. And with this year’s Chinese New Year ushering in the Year of the Dog on Feb. 16, it is a good time to look at how much of an impact these animals can make.

“I want to bring a smile to the face of someone going through cancer,” said Ron Emory, whose certified therapy dog Gracie visits cancer patients at the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University. “She does all the work. All I have to do is make sure she gets here to see the patients.”

While the visits Gracie makes to the cancer center are different than the clinical animal-assisted therapy used for patients with PTSD or children with autism, she has received her certification to serve as a therapy animal for any kind of therapy a person may need. Gracie and Ron are both members of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, whose members visit cancer centers, airports, nursing homes and even college campuses.

“Pet therapy has been shown to decrease pain, change vital signs and decrease fear in pediatric inpatient settings,” said Dr. Amy Allison, director for Psycho-Social Oncology Service at the Georgia Cancer Center. “We know pets have a natural ability to offer affection and companionship and to stimulate people’s curiosity.”

Emory, whose wife is a double breast cancer survivor, said his wife’s battle with cancer is one of the driving reasons for trying to spread a little joy to patients in the cancer center, and watching Gracie and her colleague, Callie, walk through the patient waiting areas and staff offices at the Georgia Cancer Center, it’s obvious how people’s moods improved. There were smiles, laughter and plenty of pet stories shared.

“Patients and families in our waiting room are likely a little nervous or worried as they anticipate their appointment or the start of their chemotherapy,” Allison said. “The dogs provide some distraction for them, giving comfort and encouragement.”

Since Gracie received her certification six years ago, she and Emory have done 1,100 visits with people in 12 states, including adult hospitals, children’s hospitals, army hospitals, cancer centers, and other facilities.

“It is amazing to me to be able to watch the things she can do when she walks into a room,” he said.

If you’d like to experience the Chinese New Year at Augusta University, visit the Noon Arts concert  scheduled for Wednesday.

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About the author

Chris Curry

Chris Curry is Communications Coordinator for the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University. Contact him to schedule an interview on this topic or with one of our experts at 706-799-8841 or chrcurry@augusta.edu.