RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – When Margaret Popik visits the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Medical Center with her eight-year-old Golden Doodle Elsa, she says Elsa is the main attraction.

“I feel like I’m walking around with the Beatles or Taylor Swift because people run to you. We call it getting love bombed,” Popik said. “People light up, and they come over. I am always ready with hand sanitizer.”

Elsa is part of ‘Dogs on Call,’ an evidence-based therapy program at the Center for Human-Animal Interaction for VCU Health. The mission is to improve the health and well-being of patients, staff and students through human-animal interaction during their hospital visits.

Every day, a dog accompanies their volunteer handler. The registered therapy dogs are called by request so the patients and staff can pet, play with or watch the dog, as research shows mood elevation and a reduction in blood pressure during their visits.

“The dogs visit everywhere except for where surgery is being performed or food is being served,” Nancy Gee, the Center for Human-Animal Interaction Director, said. Gee is also a handler in the program with her poodle, Allie.

The program has almost 70 volunteer handlers, some of whom have multiple dogs in the program.

“I feel like I’m just the driver, I drive my dogs here, and they do all the work,” Ann Patton, a member of Dogs on Call for 15 years, said. “I feel like I’m living my best life in doing this.”

Patton was accompanied by her youngest Rat Terrier, Scout, who is two years old. Dogs of any size are welcome into the program and each dog spends a minimum of five minutes with patients.

Popik and Elsa joined Dogs on Call because she witnessed firsthand how impactful the service can be.

“My son’s best friend was going through cancer treatment here, which was pretty rough. When I was here with them, nothing made him smile but the dogs,” Popik said. “At that point, I had a 12-week-old fluff ball, and doing something felt better than nothing. That’s when I started training her.”

Hand sanitizer before and after the dog is mandatory as it reduces the risk of carrying infections. Once sanitized, the dogs always welcome the affection.

“Our patients love it, but our healthcare workers love it,” Gee said. “We have a pager, we take requests by email, phone, but our healthcare workers make many of those requests.”

Healthcare workers have enjoyed the program so much they began to make a shrine out of the dog’s trading cards.

“Each of our on-call dogs gets a stack of trading cards, and they hand them out when they visit, and these are collectibles,” Gee said. “People love these cards and want to collect new dogs constantly.”

While the dogs make their rounds, they provide a relaxing feeling while spreading love.

“It’s hard to find the words because it’s pretty life-changing. It’s an honor to be invited into somebody’s room when they’re not feeling well and hopefully make them feel better,” Popik said. “Sometimes it’s emotional, sometimes it’s happy, sometimes it’s intense, but overall I feel like I’ve helped.”

“The handlers and the dogs are the only ones that walk into the room and aren’t wanting something from the patient,” Gee added. “They’re not there to take a blood sample, give them a pill, or take their blood pressure – they’re there to visit and interact, just for that moment, and everybody needs just that little rest.” 

If you would like to learn more about Dogs on Call or become a volunteer, you can learn more here.