Doggie Howser, MD: Therapy dog

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Casper the therapy dog visits with surgical floor nurses at Plains Regional Medical Center. “The staff and the patients, they love having him here,” his owner David Kelso said.

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom Newspapers

A practiced calm settled over Casper as he stood ready to make his rounds.

As the 4-year-old Akita strutted down the halls at Plains Regional Medical Center, heads turned.

“Hey, Casper” and “Hello, beautiful boy,” mingled with “oohs” and “aahs.” The dog’s owner, PRMC surgical director David Kelso, walked steadily beside him.

Arriving at a patient’s door, Casper announced himself, tilting his head back and issuing a resounding howl, like a single, low note from a horn.

The greeting elicited laughter from surgical patient Norma Hovde and her husband. Hovde instantly held her arms out to him, welcoming him to her bedside.

Casper’s tall, 110-pound frame, which reached just above the edge of the bed, was well suited for the scenario. He laid his head across the blankets so she could pet him.

“I miss my dogs more than anything,” Hovde said. A little more than three days into her hospital stay, Hovde said she often thought of her five dogs and eight cats at home in Melrose.

“What a handsome man,” she said, rubbing Casper’s broad forehead. “I’ve got to get home and give my dogs some loving.”

Surgical charge nurse Sharon Ray said animals have a knack for lifting patient’s spirits. As long as doctors agree, she said patients are often allowed visits from their pets because it can have such a positive effect on their progress.

“It gives your heart a lift to see the patients (happy),” she said. “It boosts their morale.”

That is precisely the goal, Kelso said.

Casper’s skills at providing comfort, physical interaction and unconditional affection can make him part of the healing process for those he meets, Kelso said. And Casper benefits as much as they do.

“He loves to come see the patients and the staff,” Kelso said. “When he sees the red shirt and puts on the bandana, he knows he’s working,” the 49-year-old said, indicating their matching attire.

A multifaceted service and assistance dog, Casper is certified in therapy, search and rescue, and cadaver searches. He arrived in Clovis the night of the March 23 tornado.

Being able to incorporate Casper’s skills into his profession is a great bonus, said Kelso.

When Casper visits the hospital, he must prepare much like a human would for the day. His teeth are brushed, he has a bath and his coat is groomed — all part of the requirements of the International Delta Society of Therapy Dogs.

Currently Casper’s therapy services are used case by case at the request of a hospital staff member, Kelso said. If someone indicates a patient might benefit from a visit, Kelso brings him in.

In the year or so Casper has been doing therapy work, he has visited with residents of retirement homes, hospital patients and students in schools. He also has an extensive background in rescuing lost hikers, working on plane crashes and other instances where his skills are called for, Kelso said.

Patients with injuries can brush his coat and are actually engaging in a fine motor skills that build muscle tone.

Patients with a difficulty or reluctance to walk often jump at the opportunity to take Casper for a stroll.

And of course there is the cuddle factor.

“The patients love him and he loves doing it,” Kelso said. “He’s big for his breed, but he’s got a great personality.”