Take a Paws for Pet Therapy at Work

Staff and faculty can spend time with a 'Pets at Duke' therapy dog through Duke’s employee wellness program

“I work in a pretty stressful job, so coming for a couple of minutes to pet the dog is nice,” said Tsentner, who met Jerry at an earlier open house. “And I think he senses that we all need a few minutes’ break.”

Expanding the pet therapy program is something organizers have hoped to do since Pets at Duke started through the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program in 1994. During those early visits therapy dogs had with patients, one unintended benefit was clear: Health System employees seemed to unclench their shoulders, unfurrow their brows and smile more.

“Because we saw the benefits, we knew we needed to do this,” said Kevlin Swepston, Pets at Duke coordinator.

For now, Jerry is the only dog assigned to work with staff, but the aim is to grow the program with additional dogs and visit opportunities, Swepston said.

Benefits of Therapy Dogs

Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure, according to the National Institutes of Health. Pets can also reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support and boost your mood.

All of this seems obvious to Andrew Somers, a nurse in Duke’s Department of Radiology.

Duke Health staff members pet Jerry, the Pets at Duke therapy dog. Photo by Travis Stanley

“The ability for pets to provide their human counterparts with a therapeutic response to relieving stress has been proven for millennia now,” Somers said. “It does help us break up the day and reduce the stress in a meaningful, significant way.”

Somers carved out a few minutes in his day to spend time with Jerry when word spread quickly through his department that the therapy dog was having open office hours in Duke Medicine Pavilion last month.

Jerry is 22 months old – on the young side for therapy dogs in the Pets at Duke program, Swepston said – but that extra bit of youthful energy made her think he would be the perfect dog to visit with staff. Dogs in the Pets at Duke program can be all ages and breeds, ranging from a tiny Jack Russell terrier to a 150-pound Newfoundland, and a dog as old as a 15-year-old who recently retired.

All dogs must receive outside therapy certification, and then be approved by Pets at Duke’s evaluation system.

Jerry’s ‘Deep Soul’

Gary Ziegler is Jerry’s owner and handler. He adopted the dog formally named U.S.S. Fitzgerald (Jerry for short) not long after his previous golden retriever died. The dog’s breeder initially intended for Jerry to be a show dog, but when a heart murmur was detected, the breeder saw another path for him.

Ron Ziegler, left, holds the leash of Pets at Duke therapy dog Jerry as the golden retriever receives pets from staff members.
Gary Ziegler, left, is the owner of and handler for Jerry, the Pets at Duke therapy dog for staff members. Photo by Travis Stanley

“He’s very calm, and they felt he had a very deep soul,” Ziegler said. “You can see it in his eyes.”

Eight months of rigorous therapy dog training included tasks such as ignoring pieces of Chick-fil-A when roaming the aisles of a Home Depot and not reacting to medical equipment placed in front of him. Ziegler, a former Presbyterian minister, said his own experience as a marriage and family therapist has helped both of them in their volunteer work.

“This has given me new purpose in retirement,” said Ziegler, 77.

Though both are volunteers, it’s clear that Jerry’s time spent with anyone suffering from stress or anxiety is hard work.

“The emotion transfers from us to them,” Swepston said. “They go home and sleep, just like we do after a hard shift.”

Ziegler said Jerry prefers to snooze on his back for about two hours, with all four paws in the air.

'Stress Levels Literally Reduce'

Jerry interacts with a Duke staff member
Jerry receives some love from LIVE FOR LIFE's Sara Cathey. Photo by Travis Stanley

Nia Hammett hadn’t planned on petting a dog when she went into the office a couple weeks ago, but when a co-worker sent a text in their group chat that Jerry was nearby, she made time.

Hammett said her work schedule is too busy to have her own dog right now, but she appreciates the benefits of visiting with one.

“As soon as you touch the dog, your stress levels literally reduce and you just forget you're at work,” said Hammett, a Clinical Research Specialist in the Department of Anesthesiology.

 The only negative might be that Jerry’s Pets at Duke visits aren’t available more often.

“I would be here every day,” said Somers, the nurse in Duke’s Department of Radiology.

National Pet Day is April 11. We’d love to see your pet pics! Send us photos of your beloved pet through our story idea form or working@duke.edu.

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