News & Events

American mastiff leaves big imprint on Alliance Community Hospital patients, staff

March 19, 2013

By Shannon Harsh, The Review, Published March 19, 2013

As massive mastiff Hilda lounged on the floor in the Alliance Community Hospital (ACH) lobby recently, passersby couldn't help but stop and stare. Some commented on her size to those around them, while others were more forward, asking if they could pet her. One thing was true for everyone -- they all walked away with a smile.

"Some days it's hard to get out of the lobby and go visit any patients," handler Susan Poirier said with a laugh.

Poirier and Hilda, of Sebring, have formed one of the many therapy dog teams visiting patients at ACH. It is something Poirier has wanted to do since learning about the volunteer work from Roy Clunk, owner of Roy's Car Wash, whose late Labrador Jake was involved.

"I've always loved animals, but I'd never heard of that (therapy dog work). But his dog was always at the car wash, and he had pictures of what he did with his little scarf on. I thought I would love to do that -- just to go visiting," she recalled.

Poirier said she wanted to make her own Lab into a therapy dog, but hers couldn't pass the required test, as the part that involves walking around a bite of food on the floor proved just too tempting for the dog.

"After my Lab (died), I was looking for a dog -- a breed and temperament -- that would be good for that, and I love big dogs because they're calmer and they're quieter," she said.

Poirier learned of the American mastiff on the Internet, which she read was a calm breed that does well with children and adults.

Originally, she was going to get a puppy from a breeder, but after having health concerns of her own, she decided against it. Instead, Poirier asked if there were any older dogs she could provide a home for, and the breeder put her in touch with someone going through a divorce situation who didn't have enough time for their 3 ½-year-old dog. In the summer of 2011, Hilda made the trip from Washington, D.C., to her new home in Sebring, and within a month of uniting with Poirier, she passed her therapy dog test with flying colors.

The pair try to visit at ACH and area nursing homes two or three times a week -- getting reactions wherever they go.

"(People) are just amazed that she's so big, and there's people who have gotten bitten as children and they're afraid of dogs and they warm right up to her," Poirier said. "It's like little miracles happen all the time."

Poirier described one man in Community Care Center who was having trouble getting out of his wheelchair but immediately stood up and started walking toward Hilda when he saw her. "It was neat to see. She just connects with people, and it's just really magical," Poirier said. "It does your heart good after a long day at the office."

She recalled a woman being extremely grateful for their visit because she had been in the hospital for three days and had not had one visitor. "She just visited with Hilda, and they had a wonderful connection," she said. "You could see her demeanor change. She was all depressed when we walked in, and by the time we left, she was enjoying herself and smiling. It's just wonderful."

As happy as people are to see Hilda, Poirier said her 150-pound pooch is just as happy to visit with people and get extra attention. "And it gives her a job instead of being home all day. She loves going. When I pull in the driveway, she's ready," Poirier said. "There's been days when I come in with her and she doesn't want to leave. We'll get to the front door and she's at the end of the leash behind me and trying to slow down like a little mule."

Michele Quinn, coordinator of volunteer services, acknowledged the effect Hilda has had on patients. "I know she's very popular with everybody. She's a gentle giant. She has such a passive personality," Quinn said. "And how could you not love that face?"

There are more than 30 therapy dogs of all sizes who visit ACH as part of its Paws and Reflect program. Quinn said the service they provide helps not only the patients and visitors, but also the employees, who benefit from the stress-relieving effect dogs have been shown to have on people.

"Last year when they were transitioning to upgrading our Meditech (software), I got a phone call that said please bring the dogs. That entire week we had dogs here because it was stressful for the staff," Quinn said. She added that they have been so beneficial to the staff that the handlers now bring dogs into Conference Room 1A once a month so employees can visit with them during their breaks.

Quinn pointed out the volunteers do other things in the community as well, such as reading and dog safety programs. "Every aspect of what they do is huge," she said. "The handlers are wonderful, the dogs are wonderful."

Poirier called therapy dog work an "uplifting" experience that she highly recommends to others. "It brings smiles to people's faces. It just warms my heart," she said.

Quinn said ACH is always looking for new dogs and handlers to volunteer during different shifts. She said that the therapy dogs are the only animals allowed in the facility, as they go through extensive training and must pass a special test and go through four mentoring sessions to be allowed to visit. All ACH therapy dogs must be certified through Therapy Dogs International (TDI). The TDI test is given at the hospital each month by certified evaluators, but Quinn said those who take and pass the test do not have to visit at ACH. For more information, contact volunteer services at 330-596-7822.

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