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May 10, 2017

ThedaCare Expands Pet Therapy Program

Sometimes just a little extra support can go a long way in making a tough time a little easier, and it’s even better when that support comes with a furry face.

Behavioral Health Clients Benefit from Visits with Dolly the Dog

Sometimes just a little extra support can go a long way in making a tough time a little easier, and it’s even better when that support comes with a furry face. That’s why ThedaCare Behavioral Health introduced a pilot pet therapy program in March, bringing a friendly Shetland sheep dog in to visit with some clients.

In 2016, ThedaCare At Home Hospice launched a pet therapy volunteer program that also led to a pilot program at ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center. A pet therapy program seemed a natural fit for ThedaCare Behavioral Health as well, but confidentiality rules prevented the department from bringing in volunteers.

To solve the problem, behavioral health therapist Marcia Vasta decided to certify her own dog, a Shetland sheep dog – or Sheltie – named Dolly. Dolly was a great candidate because she already had obedience training, appeared in conformation dog shows and performed on agility courses. Shelties are a highly intelligent dog breed, and Dolly is particularly responsive to client needs, Vasta said.

“If the client gets upset, Dolly will come out and see if they need a pet,” Vasta said. “She’s really emotionally intuitive that way.”

To be certified with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Dolly was required to undergo behavioral evaluations and make three practice visits to places like nursing homes and hospitals. She also must be current on all her vaccinations, veterinary visits and be well-groomed on visit days – presenting a “business casual” appearance, Vasta said. Dolly even has her own shingle on the wall with other therapists.

Pet therapy is known to have multiple benefits, including reducing feelings of depression, isolation and alienation; decreasing anxiety and inducing an automatic relaxation response; and encouraging communication – a key facet of behavioral therapy sessions.

Becky, a ThedaCare behavioral health client, said having Dolly in the room makes her feel more relaxed. “It’s helped to ease a lot of fears and anxiety during the sessions,” said Becky, who hopes to certify her own dog and volunteer as a pet therapist. “Dolly being in the room is a calming experience. It’s been a tremendous change in a positive way.”

To ensure clients are interested in having Dolly in the room during their sessions, Vasta and Dolly will first visit the waiting room and talk to clients about the visit. Everyone has the option to decline a visit with Dolly, who will stay with another therapist during that client’s session.

Dolly spends about two days per week at the Menasha office, where she has both a dog bed and a kennel to retreat to when she’s tired. Vasta rotates the days Dolly visits so all clients have a chance to spend time with her, and both clients and staff of ThedaCare Behavioral Health ask for Dolly when she’s not visiting for the day. In fact, the staff seem to enjoy Dolly as much as the clients do, Vasta said.

Dolly also visits the ThedaCare Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) recovery services and day treatment areas as time allows, Vasta said. Dolly’s role may expand to include other therapists’ clients and other therapists or staff might eventually certify their pets as well.

For more than 100 years, ThedaCare™ has been committed to finding a better way to deliver serious and complex healthcare to patients throughout Northeast Wisconsin. The organization serves over 200,000 patients annually and employs more than 6,800 healthcare professionals throughout the region. ThedaCare has seven hospitals located in Appleton, Neenah, Berlin, Waupaca, Shawano, New London and Wild Rose, as well as 32 clinics in nine counties and the ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center in Appleton. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving our specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a non-profit healthcare organization with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs as well as a foundation dedicated to community service.  For more information, visit or follow ThedaCare on Facebook and Twitter.