Pet Therapy at Arkansas Heart Hospital: Meet Stella

Pet Therapy at Arkansas Heart Hospital

For several years, Arkansas Heart Hospital has used pet therapy as a way to promote healing, motivate progress and lift spirits for our patients. These furry friends aren’t just helpful companions in times of need – they’re instant mood boosters when they walk through our doors. We’ve seen countless faces light up at just the moment they need something to smile about, and we know it’s going to be a good day when we see these pups in our halls.

Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal that aims to help that person recover or cope with a health problem or mental illness. At Arkansas Heart Hospital, dogs are the pet therapy animals our patients interact with, though there are many types of animals that can be used in pet therapy. We’ll be introducing you to some of our four-legged friends and the people that love, care for and train them to be a blessing to our patients.

Stella is a 5 year old English Retriever from Colliersville, Tennessee.

Mike had been aware of pet therapy for a long time through his wife Leslie, who was involved in pet therapy with her dog Maggie. He watched Leslie and Maggie do their magic in the community for quite a while. When Maggie passed away, Mike wanted to get another dog for Leslie and found Stella in Colliersville, Tennessee. Under the ruse of taking a vacation, Mike took Leslie on a trip to Tennessee where he surprised her with Stella. They came home happy to include Stella in their family. As time passed, Stella became deeply bonded to Mike —  she went everywhere he went. She was so loyal to Mike that one day, Leslie suggested they try training her for pet therapy. They connected with Central Arkansas Pet Partners (CAPP) and went through their handler and pet training.

At first, Mike wasn’t sure if Stella would be the right fit to be a therapy dog, but wanted to try anyway.

“I just knew I wanted to give it a shot,” Mike said. “So we started the process and did the work necessary for Stella to become a good therapy dog, and just as importantly, the work that would make us a good team. At first Stella was afraid of everything. I honestly was not sure she was going to make it. At one of our CAPP meetings, they suggested that I take Stella to Home Depot 3 days a week for a few months. We did that. For six months, I would take Stella to Home Depot and we would just walk around. Over the course of that time, Stella warmed up to the role of being around people. We continued working hard and together we certified and have become a great team.”

Through their training, Mike and Stella’s bond has only grown stronger. Mike is diabetic. One of the things that Stella has done instinctively – not by special training, but as a result of her tight bond with Mike – is help him monitor his blood sugar. Stella will come and bark or paw at him when she senses something amiss. Mike says Stella took it upon herself to be his guardian angel.

What is Stella’s favorite activity?

“Stella loves to play with tennis balls. She just goes nuts. Her favorite toy is the canine launcher – a contraption that we put the ball in and it launches it into the air and she goes after it. She will do this over and over and over until I tell her it is time to stop. Her other favorite thing is visiting. She can be an absolute diva nut dog around the house – but when I put her vest on her, her whole demeanor changes. She is calm, steady, stands tall and is ready to go to work. She is such a flirt and loves to go out and visit.”

What is one thing Stella will not do?

“Oh my, Stella hates to go into the crate. When I pull out the pet carrier here at the house she hightails it down the hall. When we visit at Children’s, they have a crate that she has to get into so we can visit. When she first saw it, she balked, but now she recognizes where we are and that if she gets in that crate she will get to see children, so she willingly jumps in (this is the only place she willingly gets into a crate). And the pool – she will not get into the pool. She will chase a water sprinkler and play with it – but there is no way she is getting into the pool.”

What is one thing people should know about pet therapy visiting?

“If someone is thinking about doing pet therapy with their dog, they need to remember it is a team adventure. The dog really has to want to do it. You should never force your dog to do it just because it makes you the handler feel good about yourself. I was not sure Stella was going to make it. We took an extra six months to slowly work together to make sure this be as big a joy to Stella as it would be for me. I would have had no problem stopping the process and not pursuing pet therapy if Stella had not made the changes she made in that six month time frame. It is all about the people we get to see and the interaction between Stella, the patient, the family and the staff. I just get to go along for the ride and observe immediate joy.”

Stella and Mike like to get out and visit 3 days a week.

We could not be more proud to have Stella and Mike as part of the Arkansas Heart Hospital’s pet therapy. Learn more about Central Arkansas Pet Partners here. To learn more about how Arkansas Heart Hospital provides amazing treatment for its patients, learn more about our heart care services.