How therapy dogs ease the tension for patients, families at Overlake and other Seattle-area hospitals

Several hospitals in the region, including Overlake, Children’s and Swedish, use therapy dogs. The animals listen attentively as children read to them, lay a head on the shoulder of the infirm and ease the tension in a room full of anxious family.

During a recent afternoon shift change on the oncology floor at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, the usual suspects crowded the hallway: nurses, aides, visitors, patients in wheelchairs towing IV poles.

But one visitor quickly attracted a circle of admirers: Viansa, a yellow lab with soft ears and understanding eyes.

Viansa is part of a team of five certified therapy dogs who visit the hospital weekly with their handlers to bring patients a measure of calm and reassurance. Several hospitals in the region, including Seattle Children’s and Swedish Medical Center, have added therapy dogs to their ranks of volunteers.

The dogs listen attentively as children read to them, lay a head on the shoulder of the infirm and ease the tension in a room full of anxious family members.

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Karen Keenan, Viansa’s handler and a nurse herself, said that being in the hospital is often a difficult time in a person’s life, scary for both the patient and the family. A dog can offer comfort and unconditional love.

She recalled a past visit to a hospital room.

“One family was surrounding the dying patient. Viansa went from person to person. They were loving on her, crying,” she said.

Viansa was trained as a puppy to be a Guide Dog for the Blind, but she had a spot on her own eye that veterinarians worried would become a cataract. A blind dog couldn’t lead the blind, Keenan said, but her temperament — easygoing and well-behaved — made her a perfect therapy dog.

Certified, trained

To become part of Overlake’s dog-therapy team, a dog must be at least a year old, be certified as a therapy dog, and undergo additional training in…

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