MUNSTER — Sassy, Meiko and Ernie roamed the fluorescent-lit hospital halls, stopping in to check on patients.

The three didn't have degrees in medicine or health care. In fact, they weren't even human.

Nonetheless, the dogs provided healing to people at some of the lowest points of their lives.

"I think this is a much better form of therapy than drugs can give you," said Cheryl Mumford, of Dyer, as she doted over Meiko, a 4-year-old Saint Bernard mix. "This comes from love."

Like the other people the dogs visited on a recent day here, Mumford, who was rehabbing from surgery, reminisced about her own pets, past and present. A retired police officer, the 63-year-old recalled the stray dogs she used to pick up on patrol.

Meiko and his furry compatriots are part of a new program at the Franciscan Health hospital in Munster, where, every Wednesday afternoon, pets visit patients. Research has found that animals can relax and motivate people in their treatment for everything from cancer to dementia, anxiety to heart disease.

"They help so much with recovery," said Julie Canaday, an administrative assistant in the marketing department of Franciscan Alliance, who started the pet therapy program.

She said she's seen a dog lower a patient's blood pressure, another put a smile on the face of a kid in the emergency room for the first time in days. Her own therapy dog saved the life of a close relative who was contemplating suicide, she said.

Franciscan also has pet therapy programs at its hospitals in Crown Point and Michigan City. Community Healthcare System's Hartsfield Village has animals interact with its assisted-living residents in Munster, while one of the oncology nurse navigators at Valparaiso's Porter Regional Hospital sometimes has her therapy dog mingle with patients.

The Franciscan Munster hospital's program so far has nine dogs, which are owned by volunteers. The animals must be certified by either Therapy Dogs International or the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

"Ernie's here again!" a staffer at the Munster facility called out as the wiggly Boston terrier greeted a hallway nook of doctors, nurses and other employees, who were excited to see him.

"It's as much for the staff as it is for the patients," said the Rev. Francis Tebbe, director of mission services for Franciscan Health hospitals in Munster, Hammond and Dyer. "Sometimes more staff will see them because patients are too sick or they're sleeping."

"We need therapy, too," a passing doctor said.

A housekeeper stopped what she was doing to say hi to one of the pups. "Want to come home with me?" she asked.

A woman stepped out of one of the rooms and asked if her mom could see Meiko.

"As long as there's no stop sign," Canady said, meaning a patient who is in isolation or a fall risk.

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There wasn't, so Ernie walked into the room, where an elderly woman lay in a bed with tubes sticking out of her nostrils and IV catheters in her arms. When she saw him, her face lit up.

"Stay," Canady said to Meiko, as he dropped by another patient's room. He sat calmly next to the woman's bed.

"Good boy," said the patient, Kathy Kotney, of Griffith. She tried to kiss him.

"He's not really into kisses," Canady said.

Kotney, 52, said she used to be a nurse in a facility that brought in therapy dogs.

"It brightened everyone's day," she said.

Down the hall, Ken Hathway, of Griffith, said he had been in the hospital for 18 days. He looked tired, ready to go home, over it.

Then Ernie came in. Hathway petted him and started talking about Dutchess, his late Westie who died in 2017. The retired steelworker showed a bracelet on his arm dedicated to her: "Best friend I ever in my life."

The 76-year-old was asked if he liked hanging out with the dogs.

"I'm an animal lover. Hell, yeah, why wouldn't you?" he said.

On the rehabilitation floor, nurse Christina Tuskan picked up Meiko. "Oh, you've got bad breath," she told him. She smooched him anyway.

"There's Meiko," said a nurse shuffling by.

A little while later, two hours after the dogs arrived at the hospital, they headed down to the lobby with their owners, preparing to depart.

"Did you see those people's faces?" commented Bob Abernathy, a program volunteer who, with his wife, Charlotte, own the Boston terriers Ernie and Sassy, who was being petted by a security guard.

"Medicine isn't the only way to cure your illness," Canady said.


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.