As he sat regally upon the bed, Mr. Darcy gazed into the woman’s eyes before slowly inclining his head so his ears could be scratched.
Mr. Darcy is an 11-pound, black-and-white English toy spaniel.
He is also a therapy dog for the Healing Paws program at French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, which brings certified therapy pets to the hospital to help soothe and comfort patients. Currently, the hospital has 11 dogs in its pet visitation rotation, ranging from a 3-pound Chihuahua-papillon mix to a 90-pound goldendoodle (golden retriever/poodle mix).
Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to have a positive effect on patient recovery, according to animal-visit liaison Jill Urmy, a registered nurse. The experience reduces stress and anxiety levels and has been known to lower blood pressure and help comfort patients who are in pain.
“I had dreamed of this for years and had to work with our hospital administration and our infection control department to make sure that we were able to do this,” Urmy said of the program, which began in October 2013. “It was several years in the making.”
It’s calming to me to pet a dog. It’s always calming.
Donnie Jensen, patient
As part of the program, Mr. Darcy (named after a character from the novel “Pride and Prejudice”) visits French Hospital several days a week to be held, petted and cuddled by patients in the hospital’s various wards.
Watching the 9-year-old toy spaniel as he patiently sits on the lap of Donnie Jensen, who was recovering from hip surgery two days prior, it’s clear what owner Denise Fitzgerald means when she says that therapy dogs are born, not made.
“Others will say 90 percent, it’s a temperament that you look for in a dog,” she said. “There is some training, there is a lot of socialization that comes along with it, but a dog with the right temperament, it’ll come naturally to them as well.”
And it comes naturally to Mr. Darcy.
As soon as Fitzgerald entered the hospital room pushing Mr. Darcy in a large black stroller, Jensen’s face lit up. After parking the stroller next to the bed, Fitzgerald asked the eager Jensen if there was any place on her that the dog shouldn’t go, or any place that was in pain. After a quick shake of her head, Darcy was lifted up onto Jensen’s lap, where she immediately began to pet the dog’s long, velvety ears.
“It’s calming to me to pet a dog,” Jensen said, noting that she doesn’t have any dogs of her own. “It’s always calming.”
For the next 15 minutes, Mr. Darcy sat patiently on and near Jensen’s lap as she stroked his ears, talking with Fitzgerald about her surgery and her past experience with dogs. The dog made no move to hop off the bed, or bark or jump on Jensen. Instead he sat carefully beside her, sometimes adjusting himself so he could be in more pictures.
“He’s such a ham!” Fitzgerald said with a laugh. “I had no idea he was this much of a ham.”
When their time was up, Jensen was all smiles as she cooed to Mr. Darcy and gave him one final scratch on the head before letting Fitzgerald put him back in his stroller — “He’s a beautiful dog,” she said wistfully.
But even then Mr. Darcy wasn’t done; as he and Fitzgerald were leaving, another patient in the room asked to pet him, to which Fitzgerald replied, “Of course!”
He’s just a special dog. He’s very in tune to people’s needs.
Denise Fitzgerald, Mr. Darcy’s owner
“Darcy has been my perfect little therapy dog for a long time now,” Fitzgerald said later. “I’ve lost track of how many visits, but he’s been involved in programs with elementary school kids and reading programs, visits at finals week at Cal Poly, lots of time at convalescent homes. But here at French has really been our favorite place.”
Fitzgerald said over the years Mr. Darcy has helped a range of patients — he’s sat with families making tough medical decisions, patients who are entirely covered in medical equipment and tubes, cardiac patients and many others. Her favorite memory, however, is one when Mr. Darcy was meeting with a blind patient.
“I started telling her my dogs were a little different from other dogs, and as I was telling her, her hands immediately went to his face,” she said. “And as she felt them, the smile on her face just lit up. There’s this person in the ICU with a little dog, and she’s just feeling its face and smiling — that’s just, ‘Wow.’ Just seeing what an impact they bring is just cool.”
Mr. Darcy is semiretired now because of a heart problem that has Fitzgerald forcing him to take it easy, but she’s been training another English toy spaniel — this one named Mr. Bennett, also after the novel — to follow in Mr. Darcy’s footsteps.
“Darcy has a very bad heart, which has helped us to really relate to the patients in the cardiac area, she said. “He’s slowing down but still doing great. He’s just a special dog.”
Is your dog suited for therapy?
Denise Fitzgerald is a tester for Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national therapy dog registry with 14,000 members in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. The group helps dog owners with friendly pets become certified to visit hospitals and convalescent homes, among other locations. If you are interested in applying to the French Hospital Medical Center Healing Paws program, your dog must first be certified by one of the registries. To learn more about the requirements, visit www.therapydogs.com.