‘They give love’: Therapy dogs descend on Rainbow Babies to lift spirits, help heal patients

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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Pets are medicine for the soul.

And at University Hospitals of Cleveland, they're a huge part of the healing process for the sickest of patients -- or anyone who might just need a smile.

Nearly 150 dogs, one pony and one cat are involved in the Pet Pals program, where volunteer handlers take their trained animals through the hospitals to visit patients, staff and visitors.

Diane Pekarek, Pet Pals coordinator for University Hospitals, said they provide unconditional love for anyone who needs it. Tuesday, around 10 dogs were at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital visiting patients with its outpatient oncology clinic.

"Dogs are great because they give love," said Pekarek. "They don't stumble about the right things to say, they don't come with worry. Just bam, they come and they give love and bring smiles and bring people right out of their shells."

She emphasized the importance of all the volunteers who give their time as part of the program, bringing their certified animals to the facilities and spending so much time letting them meet and work with patients.

Adam Lapsevich is one of those volunteers. He brings his dog, Petula, for weekly visits. He said he wanted a Pomeranian so he cold give back to other people. He came across the program, and the rest is history.

"She's now a little celebrity here," he said. "She's got her own Facebook page and her own Instagram account."

Each animal involved has their own trading card with their name, photo and other facts. They're collected by both children and adults.

"They're like gold around here," said Pekarek.

Lisa Perry, a UH child life specialist, said the Pet Pals program makes the biggest difference of all the activities the hospital has for entertainment.

"It takes some of the hospital stuff away," she said. "Some are extremely ill, and I've brought pets into their rooms...and animals know. All of a sudden you see the patient's hand coming over and petting them, and the tiniest smiles on the sickest of patients."

Pekarek said the program is looking for even more volunteers and pets to become involved in the over 25-year-old program.

For more on that program, click here.

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