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Stress reliever

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Salmon visits a patient in ER Wednesday afternoon. Although the boy was shy, he was happy to see Salmon.
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Salmon visits with staff at Reid Health Connersville in ER. The staff enjoy when Salmon comes to visit.
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Salmon receives attention from an employee at Reid Health in Connersville. He brings a sense of relief during stressful situations.

By KATE THURSTON - kthurston@newsexaminer.com

When Salmon comes in, the emergency room’s whole demeanor changes.

Wagging his tail, Salmon, a certified therapy dog, brings more than smiles to patients and staff when he visits the hospital. He brings a sense of relief.

“The evidence is right before our eyes,” John Herig, Salmon’s handler, said, as the dog walked into the emergency room at Reid Health-Connersville on Wednesday. “People are happier, people are more talkative, and often begin to share stories about their own pets at home. It brings down the stress. Here comes a wagging tail and smiles appear.” 

If Salmon could talk, I am sure he would tell you how much he loves his job. His eyes tell the story, see it in his non-stop tail wagging. Look hard enough, you’ll see a smile across his muzzle.

Pet therapy helps reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.  Studies have shown that the presence of animals has a positive effect on human physiology.  Pet therapy can decrease a patient’s blood pressure and heart rate.  Salmon has volunteered almost 300 hours in almost eight years, and Herig has volunteered 876 hours in a little over 10 years at Reid Health. Reid Health has 13 teams of dog and handler. The dogs are mixed breeds, purebreds and rescue dogs.

On a weekly basis, Salmon works the Richmond headquarters and visits the Connersville campus.

“For the hospital, we split our time between staff and inpatient,” Herig said. “We start with inpatient. We ask patients if they would like to have a visit from the therapy dog. We sometimes ask the nurses who they think need a visit from Salmon. We do all of those requests but we will also roam the halls and help all who need it. Sometimes it is someone visiting, the family may be under stress. Sometimes everyone needs a little stress relief during difficult times.”

Herig said the therapy dogs are temperament tested and their behavior is shaped through training.

“In my breed, the Golden Retriever, it’s a pleasing breed. They want to be with people, it makes them happy to be with you. When you have a happy dog, magic happens,” he said.

“We enter the room and try to position the dog so the patient can touch the dog. The magic happens when they can touch the dog, grab their ears, sink their hands into their fur. You can see for a few moments their mind drift off to maybe remembering a dog from their childhood or their pet from home they miss. You just see the smile form and you can see the change in attitude. It happens with family members, staff and patients.

“When we enter a pediatric room, the kids love it. Sometimes we can put the dog in the bed, but we have a protocol and use safety pads. It is incredible to see the children’s faces when they see Salmon.”

Not just any dog can make the cut to become a therapy dog.

“The process starts out in puppyhood, around 12 weeks. We do temperament testing and other different tests. Basically, we are looking for temperament that is not skittish, that will come to you, a pup you might roll around on the floor and it not freak out, a pup that might respond to a squeaker and more.

“What we are looking for is a bond. We establish a bond early on with testing, we look for a dog that wants to be around us, is curious. Then we start formalized training around week 16. At that time, their brains are exploding, you can imprint on that dog so deep that it won’t be forgotten. We do basic play but we are shaping it into a command. We may use verbal or hand signals, basically we begin training good manners. Some pups show a lot of drive and you can take them further while others accept the training, learn the commands and are very comfortable being the door stop. Both dogs work very well in the world of therapy.”

To be a therapy dog, the dog must be a year old and be registered through Therapy Dogs International, one of three major national accrediting groups. They have a 13-step test the dog has to pass easily to become certified.

“There is a lot of science behind it, it is obviously working. You see therapy dogs in many stressful environments like the airport, hospitals and even funeral homes now.”

Herig has been in the dog business since about 1984.

“I had a dog all my life. I am currently president of the Whitewater Valley Dog Training Club and I am an instructor for K9 Good Citizen. I also instruct the therapy dog class,” he said.

Salmon is one of fewer than 50 in the United States that has DSRD training, an advanced training for natural disasters.

“He and I have been deployed, our biggest was Hurricane Harvey in Houston. We worked with first responders. We bring teams of dogs in from across the country and spend a lot of time with the clients but a lot of time with the first responders. They have reached a fatigue factor beyond what you and I could imagine.”