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June 20, 2018
Volume 15 No. 6

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Integrating Pet Therapy into Spiritual Therapy (August 17, 2016)

(Editor’s Note:  This article was originally published August 17, 2016).

Camden (not his real name) was a 10-year-old previously healthy little boy who arrived at our hospital after a car accident that left him with multiple orthopedic and spinal injuries. He was, understandably, traumatized by what he’d been through, and his doctors were worried that he wouldn’t share with them what he was thinking or feeling. I’d been invited to visit with Camden and provide whatever support he might be willing to accept.

“Don’t be surprised if he won’t talk to you,” I was cautioned. “He hasn’t said much to anybody since he got here.”

When I walked into Camden’s room, I saw that he had a halo, a stainless steel device that encircled his head and was literally bolted to his skull to immobilize his cervical spine.  He was propped up in bed, listlessly watching cartoons on TV, an untouched tray of food on the bedside table next to him. I introduced myself and said hello, and within minutes the TV was forgotten and Camden had become an alert, animated, and very engaged little boy, smiling and sharing stories about his pets, his home, and what he liked to do when he wasn’t in the hospital. I left his room a half hour later with an invitation to come back anytime.

It was truly a miraculous transformation. I’d like to believe it’s my unparalleled skill as a chaplain that enabled Camden to connect with me in a way he’d not yet connected with anyone else thus far … but I know better. Camden was more than willing to engage with me, but it wasn’t because he was excited to visit with Spiritual Care. He was excited to visit with Kayla, my therapy dog, who accompanied me on my visit with Camden.

Kayla is a seven-year-old Golden Retriever rescue I trained to become a therapy dog, part of a “dog in residence” pilot program at my academic medical center to make pet therapy available to patients, families, and staff every day. Although University Hospitals has over 130 certified “Pet Pal” therapy dogs (and one therapy pony) who visit regularly in locations all over northeast Ohio, the Pet Pals typically come in for just a few hours every month, strictly to provide pet therapy. The goal of the “dog in residence” program is to integrate pet therapy into other avenues of patient care, such as Spiritual Care. As “dog in residence” Kayla accompanies me to work every day, visiting patients, attending meetings, and working with me side-by-side to provide spiritual care whenever and wherever we can.

There have been a few times when we’ve encountered patients or families who were allergic, afraid of dogs, and/or had contact precautions that would preclude a dog from accompanying me on a visit. Those instances, however, have been few and far between, and are easily addressed by Kayla napping in my office while I complete the visit. The overwhelming response to seeing her is generally pure delight. I’ve learned that I need to take a little extra time to get from one place to another in the hospital, because invariably we’re stopped by multiple people wanting to pet Kayla. She always wags and does her best to accommodate.

Kayla helps me establish the trust and rapport that’s so important in spiritual care. She’s especially good at helping me connect with pediatric, adolescent, and young adult patients, some of whom, such as Camden, are just not “reachable” any other way. Although there are times when the connection is simply the joy and fun of seeing a friendly dog in the “sterile” environment of a hospital, I’ve noticed that the connection people have with animals is often much deeper than that. Animals represent unconditional love to many people, and even if they don’t have a religious name or framework for that love, the experience of love is transcendent and comforting to many. At the very least, pet therapy can serve as a tangible reminder that there’s more to life than whatever patients, families, and staff may currently be experiencing at that moment—in other words, there’s life outside the hospital—which in and of itself can provide a ray of hope in even the darkest of situations.

Pet therapy can be integrated with spiritual therapy to achieve a number of different objectives. For example:


  • Processing spiritual and emotional concerns
  • Trauma and grief support (sometimes, when there are no words, it can help to hug or pet a dog)
  • Staff support, especially in high acuity areas such as the ED, ICU, hematology/oncology, and labor and delivery units
  • Promoting increased awareness/utilization of Spiritual Care (“Call the chaplain—you know, the one with the dog!”)


There are as many ways to integrate pet therapy into spiritual therapy as there are chaplains. Just as chaplaincy is tailored to meet the unique needs of a given patient population in a specific setting, so, too, can pet therapy be adapted to spiritual care accordingly.

Not every dog can be a therapy animal, however. Therapy dogs must be vet checked to ensure good health, groomed regularly to ensure cleanliness, and pass certification tests for obedience, therapy dog skills, and any site-specific tests required by a particular institution. At my hospital, for example, pediatric therapy dogs like Kayla have special testing to ensure that their temperaments are suitable for excitable and unpredictable children. Kayla, for example, has had her tail pulled (and braided, by a teenage girl on our adolescent psych unit), her mouth invaded by babies exploring her tongue and her teeth with their hands, and been jolted awake by a toddler falling on her from above. Her response in each instance was to patiently endure—the only acceptable response for a pediatric therapy dog.

Spiritual Care, at its core, is all about relationship. Pet therapy can be a valuable addition to our spiritual care “tool kit” to help patients, families, and staff make the connections they need—with themselves, with one another, with the values, beliefs, and/or deity(s) of their faith, with staff—and, of course, with the professional chaplain. It’s a way to make chaplaincy visible, value-added, and fun.

As to Camden? Kayla and I visited him a few days later, and because of the connection we’d established previously, Camden felt comfortable talking to us about his accident. While he petted Kayla, he shared with me how scared he’d been when he saw the oncoming car, how worried he’d been that his brother would die, how scared he was that he was going to die. I was able to listen and be there for him, helping him safely construct a narrative in which he began to find meaning and hope, and to help him name and validate feelings he’d never before experienced. Kayla edged closer to him as he cried.

After that visit, it was as if someone had flipped a switch with Camden. He became, with everyone, the happy, prankster boy he’d been before the accident, smiling, joking, and engaging freely with staff, and participating more fully and enthusiastically in the physical and occupational therapies designed to maximize his healing and recovery.

As for Kayla? She got an extra treat when we got home.

Interested in learning more about establishing a pet therapy program where you work? Please contact Barbara Nalette, CAVS, Director, Volunteer Services, University Hospitals Case Medical Center, at 216.844.1504




Rev. Nancy Lynch, MDiv, MBA, BCC, is Director of Spiritual Care at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital and MacDonald Women's Hospital at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, a multi-hospital academic medical center and level 1 trauma and quaternary care center in Cleveland, Ohio. She is an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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