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Jefferson Health Lets the Dogs Out

 5 min read

Crisis Canines Provides Stress Relief to Staff

When Axel the Rottweiler lumbers through the corridors of the Jefferson Cherry Hill Hospital, he creates quite a stir. The pup-arazzi line the halls, snapping photos with their phones and rushing to him for hugs and slobbery kisses. He sits like a goooood boi and takes it all in. Often, unaware of his size, he parks his 120 pounds of muscle and fur on laps of the nurses.

It’s impossible to not smile when Axel turns on his charm. And that’s what the hospital administration is counting on.

Axel might seem like just a pleasant distraction to the staff, patients, and visitors, but his job is much more serious. He is part of the Animal Assisted Therapy Program at Jefferson’s three hospitals in New Jersey.

According to numerous studies, including one conducted by the National Institutes of Health, therapy dog intervention can significantly reduce stress after a traumatic event, and can result in decreased anxiety and depression levels in both healthcare workers and patients.

“The idea to bring therapy dogs into the hospital started at the height of the COVID-19 crisis,” says Christina Romano, divisional director of service excellence for Jefferson Health in New Jersey. “In January 2022, we were surging. There was a lot of death and a lot of sick people, and our staff was struggling.”

A representative from Crisis Response Canines called the hospital to an offer a visit. The national non-profit organization provides specially trained dogs to comfort and offer emotional support to individuals, families, communities, and first responders experiencing intense trauma in the aftermath of critical incidents.

“They came in and rounded on the units, and immediately the entire environment changed,” says Romano, who oversees guest and volunteer services for the health facilities in Cherry Hill, Stratford, and Washington Township. Petting the dogs gave the doctors, nurses, and support staff a break from the suffering and the stress at the unit. “They were relaxed and smiling. You could just feel the difference when he was there.”

After the first visit, Romano was inundated with calls from nurse managers and emergency department supervisors for a return trip. “After a few visits, we realized that this was something we needed to do on a more regular basis.”

“COVID was hard,” says Colleen Stancavage, nurse clinical coordinator in the ICU at Cherry Hill. “Cherry Hill had the first COVID patient in South Jersey—from there it just spiraled. We had nine people die in one day.”

While everyone rallied and worked together to provide the best care possible, Stancavage says that the overall situation of the pandemic hit hard, and “there was a lot of anxiety.”

She says she had her doubts as to how a therapy dog could help, but after experiencing Axel’s first visit, she understood.

“He’s an instant serotonin boost,” she says. “He’s a big ball of love who makes everyone smile—and sometimes that’s all you need—just to smile.”

Today, Axel and his fellow CRC dogs regularly roam the hallways of the hospitals, bringing good cheer, wagging tails, and respite from the often stressful day-to-day work of healthcare providers.

While CRC dogs’ main task is to give the doctors, nurses, and ancillary staff respite, they also stop by to see patients and family members who request a visit.

“I have seen the handlers walk the dogs past a patient or family member in distress, and they’ll stop and talk to them. Once they start petting the dog the transformation is amazing,” Romano says.

Romano explains that some organizations have their own “house” dogs, but Jefferson’s Animal Assisted Therapy Program contracts with the New Jersey-based CRC, which certifies, trains, and deploys teams to areas throughout the country following traumatic events such as mass shootings, catastrophic accidents, and natural disasters.

Axel and his owner/handler John Hunt were on the scene after the incident in Uvalde, Texas. Hunt, co-founder of Crisis Response Canines, is a 27-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police who served as the Homeland Security – Special Operations Section Commanding Officer. He explains that the 5-year-old Rottweiler was instrumental in easing the distress among the children.

“There was one child who wouldn’t speak, wouldn’t interact. I handed him Axel’s leash and asked him if he would like to introduce Axel to his classmates,” Hunt says. The boy took the leash and brought the dog to his friends; the change in their mood was immediate.

Axel, who received the 2022 American Kennel Club Therapy Dog of the Year Award, helped the kids feel like kids again.

Currently, CRC dogs rotate among the three New Jersey hospital campuses. Thanks to a generous donation to the Animal Assisted Therapy Program from a benefactor, the visits will be more frequent.

While CRC’s humans are all volunteers, any funding received for the program helps to defray the costs associated with training and travel. CRC dogs must go through rigorous and expensive professional training processes in order to achieve and maintain certifications from FEMA, as well as other accrediting organizations. In addition to the cost of training and certification, Hunt explains the price of gas and travel expenses can be steep.

Romano’s ultimate goal is to find ongoing funding to place a CRC dog in each of the New Jersey three hospitals—Cherry Hill, Stratford, and Washington Township—every day.

“This program is so important to us. Our associates are our greatest resource, and we need to take care of them so they can take care of our patients,” Romano says. “The Canine Response dogs are very special, especially Axel—everyone knows who he is!”

As Hunt guides Axel through a corridor of the hospital, nurses and visitors flock to meet the dog. He sits and takes in the love and affection, gives a drooly tilt of the head, then moves on to raise the spirits of the next group of admirers.