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New pet therapy dog begins at Gundersen, affirms relationship with CRHS

As Treka carefully approached her bedside, a young girl, who in a short time would be entering surgery, reached out her hand, a broad smile stretching across her face, forgetting about her procedure for a moment, thanks to a new four-legged friend.

It was Treka’s first day roaming the halls of Gundersen Health System’s La Crosse Hospital. She’s the newest canine in the pet therapy program, a partnership between Gundersen and the Coulee Region Humane Society (CRHS) and its Ambassadors of Love initiative, which began years ago with an initial visit to Gundersen by a dog named Dr. Fred. Since that first visit, several dogs have rotated through the program, with new ones being trained and brought in as older ones retire. Last month marked the beginning for Treka, a 6-year-old female Husky. She’s owned by Ambassadors of Love volunteer Donna Sullivan, who is Treka’s handler during visits to Gundersen.

To enter a medical setting, Treka needs basic obedience, according to Erin Olson, the community engagement coordinator at CRHS. Treka and other dogs must complete a canine good citizen training program, followed by a therapy dog assessment, which includes exposure to things they’d likely encounter, such as wheels chairs and unexpected noises.

“We never want them to growl, bark, or run away, or anything like that,” Olson said.

Treka went through her final assessment on April 21 when she took an initial walk around the building to look for any indicators that she was uncomfortable with what she would encounter. By all accounts, she wasn’t fazed, so she’ll become a regular in many Gundersen departments, including the Cancer Center, where Cheri Hill, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, has worked in pet therapy since its inception there 15 years ago.

“We saw the joy and normalcy the dogs brought to the kids in the hospital, and we knew we needed them in the Cancer Center,” Hill said. “The healing touch from our four-legged friends provides many benefits for our patients, including reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and distraction from pain and anxiety. It gives our patients a sense of happiness and normalcy.”

Staff, too, experience the benefits of canine visits to their floors. Sometimes the dogs can be what gets them through a stressful day.

“The companionship is a welcomed distraction for us all,” Hill said.

Olson said pet therapy is a way for CRHS to give back to a community that supports it in countless ways. It also increases the humane society’s visibility to local businesses and organizations, including Gundersen.

“The program that they provide us is top notch,” Hill said. “We are very lucky to have a program like this right here in La Crosse. Not only do we cherish our four-legged friends, but the volunteers behind the leash are cherished just as much.”

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