RICHMOND (WRIC) – A unique program at some local hospitals is lifting patients' spirits during some of the most difficult moments of their lives.
It's been a hard year for cancer patient Karin Gilligan, but one bright spot has been Schaffer, a full time therapy dog who spends every day cheering up, comforting, and simply being with patients at Chippenham and Johnston Willis hospitals.
Gilligan met Schaffer last spring and he's been there every step of her breast cancer battle - including daily radiation sessions.
"It's a happy face," she says. "I mean pets have unconditional love and he just wants to have his ears scratched or his belly rubbed. I look forward to seeing him in the morning because it's such a monotonous process Monday through Friday every Monday through Friday for weeks on end."
Schaffer's not the only pup with this special job. His partner, Fraser, is also part of the pet therapy program.
Program coordinator Daniel Ronquillo says the dogs go through special training in New York for about nine months before they start working with patients. They must have the right personality and be extremely patient around strangers.
"They see a wide range of ages and illnesses conditions," he says. "You want to make sure that they don't frighten them, that they calm them down which is the whole nature of the program is to help them feel relaxed and it's a soothing atmosphere for them while they're healing in the hospital."
And healing happens. These little guys have been with people as they take their last breath. They've helped kids recover from life changing surgery.
Fraser was even there for a toddler in pain.
"The baby grabbed onto his ears and just played with it and became very animated and totally changed just the demeanor of that baby."
While pet therapy might not be for everyone, these pooches have lifted a lot of patients during some of their darkest moments.
"If they make me smile for an extra 45 seconds on Wednesday then that's 45 seconds when I'm happier than I would have been and that 45 seconds could improve my health," Gilligan says.
Copyright 2014 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond