Top Dogs

| by Scott Nishimura |

Katie and Sadie don’t necessarily look like prayer warriors – they’re dogs – but the last thing they did before leaving Mollie Herring’s hospital room at Plaza Medical Center recently was bow their heads during a prayer.

Katie and Sadie visit hospitals, the homeless, nursing homes and retirement centers for Delta Hearts of Gold, a nonprofit formed in 2007 in Fort Worth to use animals for their therapeutic value.

“We put smiles on peoples’ faces,” Dianne Hughes, who owns Katie, a 10-year-old Golden Retriever, says. “Sometimes we’re bringing something normal to what’s abnormal.”

Hughes was a co-founder of Delta Hearts of Gold, formed as a community partner of Pet Partners International. Today, it has 42 members and 52 “teams,” meaning some members have more than one animal in the program.

They visit four hospitals, Plaza Medical, Cook Children’s, Texas Health Harris Methodist, and Weatherford Regional Medical Center. The teams also visit Union Gospel Mission in Fort Worth, The Stayton and Trinity Terrace retirement communities, nursing homes, and the special needs programs at two Fort Worth schools.

More recently, Delta teams visited the libraries at four college campuses – TCU, University of North Texas, and two Tarrant County College campuses – during finals to help students take their minds off their studies.

Delta Hearts of Gold, which is all-volunteer run, has 51 dogs and one cat. The volunteers own the pets, and the organization does little fundraising. The animals must be immunized and are trained in basic obedience, accepting treats gently, being handled by people they encounter and shrugging off loud noises. The Delta Hearts of Gold volunteers help sanitize the hands of anybody the pets encounter.

And the animals also are trained to bow their heads in prayer, if their owners offer and people like Herring accept.

Lynn O’Neill, Plaza’s chief nursing officer, worked to implement the program and bring in Delta Hearts of Gold after she saw it work at another hospital she previously worked for.

The animals help lower patients’ stress and often don't want them to leave, O’Neill said.

“It takes their mind off of what’s happening,” she said.

Delta volunteers visit Plaza once or twice a week, O’Neill said. The recent visit by Sadie, a Mini Golden Doodle, and Sadie’s owner, Karen Rainwater, was that team’s first to the hospital.

“Our goal is once a day,” she said. The emergency room, for one, has asked for the volunteers to stop by with their animals.

On the dogs’ visit to Herring’s room, Katie – an American Kennel Club Distinguished Therapy Dog, meaning she has more than 400 visits under her collar – hopped up on the bed and flopped down, as if she was going to sleep. “Oh, honey, I love you,” Herring said.

“Everybody always asks me what makes a perfect therapy dog,” Hughes told Herring. “You can teach a dog basic obedience, but you can’t teach them to love a perfect stranger unconditionally.”