The Love of a Dog – Canine Therapy at SWMC

Beginning June 1, patients at Sonoma West Medical Center can expect a whole new level of caring, and the difference will be made with the start of a new canine therapy program.  Coordinated by Deborah Ard, R.N., the canine therapy program is something the staff has wanted to implement since the beginning.  “We’ve already become accustomed to having Dr. Gude’s wonderful dog, Charlie, here a couple of times a week.  The patients and the staff just love seeing Charlie pad down the corridors.  I wanted to do something that was a real program.” IMG_5547

For most people, visiting a hospital can be both stressful and taxing on their emotions.  No matter how nice your surroundings are – for a hospital – you are most likely feeling worried, lonely, possibly tired and stressed from your condition.  Now imagine a sweet dog with golden fur and its smiling human ‘handler’ appear in your doorway offering you a visit.  You spend some time stroking the dog’s fur, while he rests his head on your lap.  You start to feel a little less stressed and a little more optimistic as each stroke lessens your worry and discomfort.

This feeling of ease is just what the team at Sonoma West Medical Center and a canine therapy program called Creating Wellness want to create for patients and their families. Creating Wellness is a non-profit therapy dog program; founded 30 years ago by Roz Morris. The program trains volunteers and their dogs to work together to provide comfort to patients and family members in hospital settings.  “I put this program together because I wanted to make a difference in patients’ lives, with the love of a dog,” explained Morris.

Roz has established relationships with 38 care facilities in Sonoma and Marin Counties to ‘Create Wellness’ for the patients…and to help facilitate healing, using all the unconditional love that a dog has to give. With this mission statement in mind, Roz began the journey to re-establish this program at Sonoma West Medical Center.  The therapeutic benefits of dogs are becoming more of a regular occurrence in hospitals, care facilities, university campuses, and even airports.  Studies have shown that dogs are a depression antidote, lower blood pressure and help people maintain positive attitudes.  With this in mind, it is the hope that these therapy dogs help those recovering in hospitals, heal faster and healthier.  Petting a dog, or any animal, can lower blood pressure and ease stress.

IMG_5540For the next few weeks of May, Rody, Gabi and one other therapy dog will be taking courses with Deb Ard, learning just how to interact with patients, their families and even the staff at the hospital.  Rody is a golden labradoodle and Gabi is a grey labradoodle.  Both dogs have a combined 17 years of canine therapy experience between them.  Gabi has been a certified therapy dog for one year; however, she has seven years of uncertified experience providing unconditional love and healing to people in various care facilities, according to her owner Liz Hagen.  Liz and Gabi plan to work together in the waiting rooms to ease stress of family members awaiting news.  Gabi will work closely with supporting Sonoma West Medical Center staff as well, to ease their stress.

Rody, an energetic dog, has been working as a therapy dog since he was a pup, providing stress reducing snuggles at a bigger hospital, until his handler Rick recently decided to bring him to Sonoma West Medical Center.  While I was meeting Rody, a young patient walked by with her nurse, wearing a hospital gown and pulling her IV pole beside her.  Without hesitation, Rody trotted right up to her, tail wagging to offer his head for a pat.  She giggled as she gently leaned over to run her fingers through his fur.  It was easy to see that this chance encounter with Rody left the patient feeling uplifted as she walked away smiling.

For more about Creating Wellness, please visit:

When Conette was just seven years old, her life changed forever

Conette arrives every day to Becoming Independent, bounding into the building with a smile on her face and enough enthusiasm to wake a hibernating bear.  On either side of her, she supports herself with a silver and red walker which is strewn with her purse and bags full of snacks to last her the whole workweek.  “You bring your whole kitchen in with you today?” I ask as she finds a seat.  “Almost!” she responds with a chuckle. Watching her socialize with her peers and the staff, one would never know the traumatic obstacles she has overcome in her 29 years of life.  I asked Conette if she would share her story with me on how she has overcome so much in life, and where she found the courage to do so.


“Still a child, Conette’s life had been completely changed before it had really started.”

Conette was born with cerebral palsy.  She grew up using canes and walkers to support her while she walked.  Although she needed these supports, this did not stop Conette from enjoying a normal childhood.  However, when she was just seven years old, Conette’s life was changed forever.  She was out in her neighborhood, enjoying an afternoon with the other children when a young boy accidentally lit the hem of her dress on fire, setting her ablaze.  Her neighbor saw Conette and the fire. He immediately rushed to her, throwing himself onto the fire, which engulfed her.  Conette was taken to the emergency room, and then was flown to St. Francis hospital in San Francisco.  Upon her arrival, doctors informed her family that she had a 50% chance of surviving her burns and that her lungs were so damaged, she would need a ventilator to help her breathe.  Thankfully, Conette made it through and for the next few months; she would endure “hundreds of surgeries” to help repair and graft her severely burned skin, which covered over half of her body.

I asked Conette if she remembered being burned, or the early days of her time in the hospital.  She told me no, she doesn’t have much recollection from that time.   Still a child, Conette’s life had been completely changed before it had really started.  I asked her how differently she was treated by people and how it affected her.  “Other kids were told to stay away from me…it made me feel lonely, like no one liked me”, she explained. Conette spent most of her childhood and teens, feeling like an outsider.  Although her appearance had changed, Conette’s spirit did not.  She persevered and remained strong through her childhood and teens, taking the initiative to start conversations with people, just to be friendly. It wasn’t until her 20’s that she felt she was accepted and treated normally by her adult counterparts.

When Conette turned 21, she had three more surgeries to correct her legs, which were turned inwards due to her cerebral palsy.  As well, at age 27 she had surgery to repair a slip disc in her spine caused by a fall. “I didn’t want another surgery” she said, “It’s so hard on the body.”

Today, Conette works and makes a modest living working at Becoming Independent.  She lives at home with her mother, has a boyfriend, and enjoys baking and cooking.

There is a saying, how a person handles hardship in their life, determines a lot about that persons character.  As someone who has known Conette for over a year, I would say that she is one of the most courageous and inspiring people I have met.  She has overcome several traumatic experiences, and has left them in the past.  These experiences may have changed her life, but they do not define her.

At the end of the interview, I asked Conette, “Where do you think all the courage came from to help you through those traumatic experiences?” She simply replied, “My heart.”


– Alyssa Soares