Helping patients heal through St. Mary’s pet therapy program
If you’ve walked the halls at St. Mary’s Medical Center on a Friday during the past year, you have probably seen Wally, a 120-pound Great Pyrenees/Akbash mix whose sheer size makes heads turn everywhere he goes.
Wally is four years old and is part of St. Mary’s pet therapy program. His owner, Genna Kareus, is a float pool nurse at St. Mary’s who’s worked in various departments over the past five years including the Emergency Department, inpatient medical/surgical units, immunization clinics, COVID relief efforts and respiratory therapy.
Genna got Wally when he was six months old. His original owners wanted him to guard their sheep, but Wally was not interested. He did, however, take a keen interest in humans. Genna enrolled Wally in training classes early on and quickly realized how great he was with people of all ages and knew that he would do well as a therapy dog.
They volunteered together at a hospice center and remained there until the height of the pandemic when the pet therapy program was paused. Genna searched for new opportunities, which led her to a place she already knew she loved, St. Mary’s.
Wally participated in multiple 12-week-long classes at a local obedience school and earned the title of ‘Canine Good Citizen’ before rounding out his training with a final pet therapy course. He’s certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international registry that provides testing, certification, registration, support and insurance for members who volunteer with their dogs in animal-assisted activities.
From his first day at St. Mary’s, Wally was beloved by every patient, visitor and caregiver he encountered. He goes everywhere in the hospital from the Emergency Department and surgical waiting rooms to various inpatient departments. He’s even been up to the helipad.
“First, we go see patients who have requested a visit, then to as many places as possible,” said Genna. “The people at the registration desk and the ER absolutely love him. The ICU doctors are his biggest fans and always have toys out for him. Every unit keeps bags of treats in their drawers and Wally knows right where to find them. He’s so big that patients’ eyes light up when they see him. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t adore him.”
To become part of St. Mary’s pet therapy program, a dog must be at least a year old and registered and/or certified for Animal Assisted Activities (AAA)/Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), Therapy Dogs International, Pet/Emotional Support Animal Partners, or Therapy Dogs, Inc.
“Pet therapy is known to help reduce stress, promote healing, lower blood pressure and brighten spirits,” said Susan Nickels, St. Mary’s Volunteer Services Manager. “It also provides many benefits to our pet therapy volunteers. They’re able to give back to the community through their service, meet generous and friendly people while serving a collective purpose, and gain a better view of the relationship between the patient, healthcare providers and the community.”
Genna considers pet therapy to be Wally’s job and calling. “He wears a special collar when we go to the hospital and the second I put it on, he gets so excited. He has really embraced it and I love the fact that it brings him as much joy as he brings to the patients and staff. Pet therapy really plays a big part in the healing process, and I love that we get to be a part of that. Every dog has a purpose, and this is his.”
If you would like to learn more about volunteering, visit the volunteer page on St. Mary's website or call the Volunteer Office at 970-298-2012 for additional information.