The Marin Post

The Voice of the Community

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The Doggone Greatest Job in Marin

Anyone who’s recently been to MarinHealth Medical Center, either as a visitor or a patient, may have been a bit surprised to see a large dog and a handler wandering the corridors, going from room to room. Rest assured, the dog you saw and others like it are providing a valuable service to patients. It’s all part of the hospital’s Dog Therapy Program.

The other day, I had the pleasure of meeting Sara Fondriest, the leader of MarinHealth’s Volunteer Services Department, which manages this service. Sara currently manages eight different volunteer programs, involving 70 weekly volunteers, eight of whom are dedicated to the Dog Therapy Program.

“Studies have shown that simply holding or stroking a dog provides patients with a happy and comforting diversion, lifts their spirits, and even lowers their blood pressure,” Sara says.

Just as healing takes many different shapes and forms, therapy dogs come in many sizes and breeds. MarinHealth’s Volunteer Services Department partners with Guide Dogs for the Blind, Marin Humane Society, First Responder Therapy Dogs, and 4 Paws to bring highly qualified and trained dogs and their owners to visit in patient rooms.

People sometimes confuse therapy dogs with working dogs that help disabled people with daily activities. But therapy dogs serve a very different purpose. Pets have a profound effect on a person’s health and well-being.

Sara explains, “The Therapy Dog Program absolutely changes the energy for the hospital. The dogs positively impact patient care, and it’s just a heartwarming sight to see patients’ eyes light up in excitement whenever one of the dogs comes around.”

“Out of all of the volunteer programs I manage at the hospital, this has the most immediate response. I’ve seen patients uplifted and more responsive, and it opens the possibility for conversation that’s not related to a person’s hospital stay. I call it holistic healing,” Sara adds.

When I asked Sara if anyone could volunteer for this program, she said anyone can be trained to become a Dog Therapy Volunteer through the MarinHealth Volunteer Services Department, as long as they know someone with a certified therapy dog that they can bring to weekly shifts. The dog and the dog’s owner must be hospital certified. Once their certification is complete, Sara will begin the training process where the newly certified dog and owner will tag along with an already certified working team.

“Our hospital’s goal is always to demonstrate how our safety measures promote a healing environment, so the focus on trained dogs, trained owners/volunteers is very important to us. Anyone can learn to handle a dog, but we can’t accept anyone who’s untrained due to all the potential harm it could pose for patients and staff if the handler doesn’t understand the dog’s cues, have good judgment or instinct in an emergency situation, or pick up on other environmental signals needed in a healthcare organization,” Sara says.

The vulnerability of the bedbound, medicated, tired, scared, and sleep-deprived patients is very real and the volunteer team must be respectful and careful about how to maneuver around them in order to ensure patient safety and well-being.

Sara understands that not everyone is a dog lover. Dog therapy volunteers always approach a visitation with caution. “We never go into a room unannounced, and we do get declines from patients from time to time, such as when any type of animal is outside a person’s comfort level.”

In terms of expanding the program in the coming year, Sara says they’re already on track to onboard three new teams of dogs and owners next month. The goal is to have at least one team per day for the general hospital campus and one team per day for the Emergency Department. Once this goal is met, the plan is to have two teams per day for the general hospital, so that it has at least one team in the morning and one team in the afternoon, Monday – Friday.

As part of the program, Sara huddles up with the volunteers after they complete their rounds to hear how everything went. “No matter what a volunteer shares, it is especially heartwarming when they complete their shift with a smile on their face as they recall a special visit they just had,” Sara says.

Sara has been with MarinHealth’s Volunteer Services Department since January 2019, where she started out as Volunteer Coordinator and was subsequently promoted to Supervisor in early 2021. Prior to joining the MarinHealth volunteer team, she was the Program Manager for the nonprofit Random Acts of Flowers’ Silicon Valley branch, which closed its doors in 2018.

If a MarinHealth patient would like to schedule a visit with one of the many service dogs, they can ask their nurse or call the volunteer office at 1-415-925-7258.