LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. –
Eyes widen, faces light up and mouths bear ear-to-ear smiles as the pitter-patter of paws echoes through the halls of U.S. Air Force Hospital Langley. Patients, visitors and staff members exclaim, "The dogs are here!"
For the last six years, Melanie Paul and her four Shetland Shepherds have been welcomed at the hospital to serve a cause near to her heart. The canines work as therapy dogs, which provide emotional support to patients, through the Langley Air Force Base Pet Therapy program.
Because she was unable to join the military due to hearing loss, Paul said she believes this her way of serving the U.S. Air Force.
"I would have loved to join the military myself," Paul said as tears formed in her eyes. "I love to be on base, interacting with the hospital staff, [American] Red Cross volunteers and patients. I think this is my part of doing something for the Air Force."
The program began when Paul approached a former 633rd Medical Group nurse with the idea of starting an animal-assisted therapy program to cater to hospital patients, she explained.
"A dog visit can decrease a patient's anxiety and increase communication and socialization. We met with [an American Red Cross representative] and launched the program."
To become qualified therapy dogs, the "Shelties" needed to pass a basic training course and be evaluated in 12 areas of the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certification test. The dogs' personality, obedience and socialization skills with humans and other dogs are observed during the test, in addition to their reaction to unfamiliar hospital equipment, Paul said. They must remain calm and quiet, and cannot be startled by the unpredictable behavior of children.
The dogs begin each visit at the hospital's Multi-Service Unit to determine which patients require therapy. After visiting the MSU, the canines make their way to the Pediatrics Clinic to comfort children awaiting treatment, before ending their visit in the emergency room waiting area.
"Mental and emotional health are very important aspects of a person's overall well-being," said U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Sarah Jun, 633rd Inpatient Operations Squadron clinical nurse. "I've seen firsthand the positive effects the dogs have had on patients, staff and visitors' emotional health. It's important to continue the program so the dogs can continue to impact people in positive ways."
Paul wishes to carry on the program as long as the Air Force welcomes her and her dogs. Ultimately, she wants to influence enough people to begin pet therapy programs at all Air Force bases.
"I hope [the patients] remember my dogs and how they came to brighten their day, make them feel good and help them understand dogs serve different purposes in their own lives," she said.
Patients, hospital staff and visitors can interact with Paul and her "Shelties" most Wednesday afternoons.
For more information about therapy dog programs, visit www.akc.org/dogowner/therapy/index.cfm