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May 10, 2016 2:33 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Hospital Will Expand Pet Therapy Program

Gene Siller, Leo, Laurie Simms, and Amy Reich. ALYSSA MELILLO
May 10, 2016 2:33 PM

Since 2014, patients at Southampton Hospital have had the pleasure of receiving visits from a furry, four-legged goldendoodle named Dipsy, the first volunteer in the hospital’s pet therapy program.Now, two years later, the program has expanded to include seven more tail-wagging volunteers—and Amy Reich, the hospital’s clinical coordinator, who also oversees the pet therapy program, said that number will only continue to grow.

“It’s known now—people will ask about the dogs. It’s a fun program,” Ms. Reich said. “For a place that most people don’t want to be in, it’s nice to have something to offer them that is fun. I don’t think there’s a cap [on volunteers].”

Currently, there are enough volunteer teams so that at least one dog can visit patients with its handler for about two hours each weekday. The goal, however, is to secure enough volunteers so that several dogs will visit patients every day, including on weekends, according to Ms. Reich.

The pet therapy program began in early 2014 and was introduced by Jane May, a part-time Southampton Village resident who already visited hospitals in New York City with Dipsy, and thought to bring a similar service to the South Fork. Southampton Hospital then became the first hospital in Suffolk County to offer a pet therapy program.

The teams are made up of local residents whose pooches are certified therapy dogs through Pet Partners, a national non-profit organization. Those dogs and their handlers are then teamed up with Southampton Hospital by Angel on a Leash, a New York City-based organization, after attending an all-day workshop, which are sometimes held at the hospital. More information can be found at angelonaleash.org.

The pet therapy program at Southampton Hospital is operated under palliative care, which focuses on treating patients with chronic illnesses. Ms. Reich said the pet therapy program has been especially beneficial for them, as the visits with the dogs help relieve them of the stress, unhappiness and anxiety that is often associated with being in a hospital for so long.

“Some of [the patients] have disabilities, some of them are bed-bound or wheelchair-bound, so, I mean, having a therapy dog come to them, especially while they’re incapacitated in the hospital, I think that’s a really good service,” she explained. “We do this chronic disease management, but it’s also a lot about wellness, which people forget about. We are very much about bringing wellness to people with chronic illness, so the pet therapy is a perfect delivery for that wellness value. The volunteers and the dogs come in without an agenda ... and it’s about the patient.”

It also benefits staff members too—Ms. Reich said her day is always better after a visit from Leo, a 2-year-old Australian labradoodle. “It’s such a distraction, such a pleasure, because [staff are] dealing with just as much stress as the patient, but in a different way,” Ms. Reich said. “It’s a really good service for the whole hospital.”

Leo is one of the newer volunteers in the program that visits Southampton Hospital once a week with his owner and handler, Gene Siller of Remsenburg. Ms. Siller said Leo trained to be a service dog ever since he was 12 weeks old, and that whenever she puts on his “Pet Partners” vest and his gentle leader—a specialized collar used to train dogs to have better leash manners—he knows he’s ready to go to work.

“He just knows that when that collar is on, this is his working hour, and he has to behave a certain way. Works every single time,” she said. “I think he likes walking around, visiting with people. I think he likes the attention and getting a few strokes out of it.

“It’s just giving back to the community,” Ms. Siller added. “I’m real proud of him.”

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