OCEANSIDE — Once a week for the past two years, Shirley Olsen and her vizsla Chispa visit Tri-City Medical Center to cheer up patients.
Their first stop is at the nurses’ station where staff members visit with Chispa to take a break from on-the-job stress. Then it’s onto patients who would like a visit.
Olsen and Chispa usually visit adult patients in the acute rehab program, where patients are recovering from brain injuries.
Olsen goes room to room with Chispa to check in with patients and see who would like a visit.
Most patients they see one time, but some long-term patients they see each week.
“A few patients we see repeatedly,” Olsen said. “It’s great to see the progress.”
During their hour at the hospital Olsen and Chispa visit with two to five patients.
Olsen keeps Chispa at a comfortable distance from patients and lets patients reach out to the dog at their own comfort level.
Olsen said Chispa is intuitive and sensitive to people in need.
She never lunges at people.
Instead she shows attentiveness by making eye contact and giving dog kisses in the air.
If a patient responds she will move closer, offer her paw, and let them brush her as part of their physical therapy.
“I think Chispa pulls people away from their pain,” Olsen said. “She gives them hope because she reminds them of the outside world.”
“Most of them cry,” Olsen added. “They really feel the warmth of a dog. One patient told me, ‘it’s just what I’ve needed.’”
A unique talent of the team is Olsen is bilingual in English and Spanish and had taught Chispa to respond to commands in both languages.
This allows them to communicate with more patients. Olsen and Chispa are one of several teams of therapy dogs and owners who volunteer at the hospital.
Other therapy dogs visit with pediatric, oncology and behavioral health patients.
They also mingle in the lobby and waiting rooms to cheer up visiting families, and some visit outpatients.
Olsen said Chispa was born to be a therapy dog.
“She was born with a nice temperament and she’s well socialized,” Olsen said.
Chispa gained certification as a therapy dog after a dog obedience instructor noticed the dog’s calm and disciplined nature and suggested Chispa go through certification testing.
Chispa was certified through the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Certificate.
Olsen volunteers with Chispa at the Beach Animals Reading with Kids, read to a dog literacy program, and Tri-City Medical Center.
The patients at Tri-City Medical Center tell Olsen they enjoy the visits.
“It brings in a sensitivity to help in the healing process,” Olsen said.
Olsen said she gains a lot too. “It helps me to give back,” Olsen said. “It helps me put things in perspective.”