Penny vibrates with excitement when her human, Jaime Pierce, puts on a blue polo shirt — her volunteer uniform at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center.
“She literally does a happy dance and will not leave my side until we leave the house,” Pierce says. “She’s like a little puppy again.”
The 11-year-old golden doodle may be one of the most eager visitors at the hospital. She and Pierce form one of 70 Dogs on Call teams that wander the halls and wards of the center — slowly, because Penny doesn’t make it far without being waylaid by an admirer.
Tired-looking nurses and medical students stop Pierce to tell her about their own dogs. People inhale excitedly and jostle to be next to Penny on the elevator. A few people are half-confused to see a dog in a hospital.
Not Kayla Fultz. The quiet 17-year-old from Amelia County immediately makes room for Penny on her hospital bed in the pediatrics ward and gives her a loving pat.
“It’s a nice change of pace,” says Fultz, whose arm is wrapped in gauze from blood draws and injections. “Something different.”
Fultz, who’s been here two weeks, has another procedure coming up. She isn’t sure when she’ll be discharged, but she knows there’ll be furry visitors to help pass the time.
Penny is the first to do tricks, Fultz says. She crawls, high-fives, plays basketball and grabs a tissue with her mouth when Pierce feigns a sneeze — all for a treat, of course.
“That was awesome,” Fultz says, as Penny leaves.
Penny is dog prodigy of sorts, passing a canine test of obedience and calmness before she was even a year old. And the day she turned 1 — the minimum age for it — Penny took a successful therapy dog test. Penny’s been working ever since, visiting local hospitals and assisted living facilities about once a week.
The program’s benefits may seem obvious. But the hospital’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction, through which the Dogs on Call program operates, wants to quantify the value of having dogs in places of healing.
Researchers have found significant reductions in stress and anxiety levels in patients, hospital workers and students after the interactions, says Sandra Barker — yes, Barker — a professor of psychiatry and director of the center.
“There’s more and more evidence coming out,” she says. “It’s about time, because we’ve had pets in our lives for centuries. So it’s a fairly young field, but the evidence is building.”