A win, win, win

Whenever you’re sick or injured, comfort is priceless. One Madison couple is improving hospital stays by delivering a special kind of four-legged comfort to local patients and staff. Be the Change intern Tyler McAvoy explains…..

Candace Wilson-Bush and Jeff Bush with their therapy dogs

Candace Wilson-Bush and Jeff Bush with their therapy dogs

Healing through companionship

By Tyler McAvoy (’13)

Medical science is a wonder of the modern age. Cures and remedies for ailments that have afflicted people for centuries are now solved in the span of a few weeks with a pill or a treatment. The flu, once one of the deadliest viruses known to man, is now cured with a few days of bed rest and some pseudo-fruit flavored syrup you can buy at your local Walgreens.

For all of our medical mastery, though, we’ve often forgotten about one of the most important aspects of getting better: companionship.

That’s where Candace Wilson­­-Bush and her team of purebred Shetland sheepdogs (shelties) come in.  Originally from Canada, Candace moved to Phoenix, Ariz., when her husband, Jeff Bush, got a job with the University of Phoenix. She had shown shelties for years in the difficult show dog circuit but decided to do something different when she came to warmer climates.

She had always heard about therapy dog programs and decided to explore her options of existing programs in local area hospitals. Surprisingly, she found one and signed up, eventually running the first therapy dog program in the area.

Last year, Candace and Jeff moved to the Harrisonburg area after he became the new director of music at James Madison University. Candace didn’t let any time waste. She joined the newly formed Pet Therapy program at Rockingham Memorial Hospital in September.

“She is a joy, an answer to prayer,” says Chris Delaughter, director of volunteer services at RMH. “She walked in just as we were implementing the program, and we were wondering how we would get this program to grow. She quickly came to the hospital and offered her services.”

Candace and Jeff take their shelties — Keisha, Kyra, Dazzle, Stormy and Tori — to the Behavioral Health Unit at RMH and let the patients spend time with the dogs.  Though the Bushes’ dogs are all purebred shelties with show dog pedigrees, any dog with the right disposition could be a good candidate.

Therapy dogs (l-r): Dazzle, Kyra, Stormy, Keisha and Tori

Therapy dogs (l-r): Dazzle, Kyra, Stormy, Keisha and Tori

“The dogs really don’t have ‘formal’ training to become therapy dogs,” says Candace. “The more the owner can do to work with the dog, the better the dog is. Socializing is so important for any dog.”

Candace is an official tester-observer for Therapy Dogs Inc., one of the leading therapy dog institutions in the nation. To be eligible to become a therapy dog team, prospective teams must join Therapy Dogs Inc., or any number of nationally recognized therapy dog programs, and then a tester-observer, like Candace, needs to give the team their stamp of approval.

“Candace brings a high level of energy and enthusiasm for this program. We’re thrilled to have her here. I hope she’s getting as much enjoyment out of this as the patients are,” Chris says.

The benefits of pet therapy can be huge and often times can alleviate many symptoms of mental illness, and provide a sense of closeness in what is often a very sanitized environment, even if it is for just a few moments.

“At lot of times you don’t realize the impact that it can have,” Candace says. “How many thousands of times did we have people say it was the best part of their hospital stay?”

“Patients and their families have mentioned many times in follow up surveys how much they have enjoyed the visits from volunteer dogs, and it’s been a great boost to patient satisfaction,” Chris says.

It’s not only the patients who benefit from the therapy dogs; sometimes patients’ families and staff at the hospital need it just as much. A family might spend long hours in waiting rooms sitting on pins and needles, while staff could be tired during the last hours of a 12-hour shift. Hospitals can be emotional and stressful places, and the atmosphere can wear on the people in them.

The Bushes with their team of therapy dogs are the calm in the storm.

“[Our] best visits we had were in the most strenuous wards,” Candace says. “We really just want to make someone smile and get that connection.”

The dogs themselves love the attention and live for the experience.  According to Candace, once they get into the hospital, their demeanor completely changes. They go straight to work and know what they have to do.

“Sometimes you feel embarrassed because it makes you feel so good,” Jeff said. “It’s a win, win, win every time. It’s hard to explain how it makes you feel. Dogs have such healing powers.”

Photos by JMU photographer Katie Landis.
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