In January 2013, Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton officially debuted their Pet Visitation Volunteer Program, which now hosts nine volunteers and their canine counterparts; ranging in size and breed, including Labradoodles, Border Collies, an English Bulldog, and a Havanese, to name a few. Since its inception, all volunteer teams (owner and dog) have dedicated more than 1,250 hours of visitation with hospital patients and families in a therapeutic effort to brighten spirits and inspire smiles. As the program took foot the teams’ impact followed, expanding beyond patient care as the therapy dogs formed relationships with staff members and comforted children and families in waiting rooms. St. Joseph’s motto, ‘Hello Humankindness’ translates in dog as “Woof Woofwoofness” to help heal on all levels.

DSC_7108Karen Quinn, Volunteer Service Department Manager, and many others within the hospital, are first hand witnesses to the healing influence induced by the dogs throughout every single one of their visits. “It lifts the mood of nearly everyone in the hospital– whether it’s a patient, family member or staff,” Karen notes. She adds that having well behaved animals in a challenging environment decreases stress, releases endorphins and lightens the mood. “For families with members in surgery, the waiting game can be nerve wracking. The dogs provide a great distraction for them. They can get people laughing by doing tricks and offering companionship.” The team has even received a standing ovation from waiting room visitors! It’s reasons such as these that pet visitation programs are gaining acceptance in hospital settings all over the nation and throughout San Joaquin.

Get to Know the Program:
Certified and Safe

Each pet and their owner serve as a volunteer ‘team’ within the program, a title earned after completion of rigorous training and certification through Therapy Dogs Inc., otherwise known as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. This training and certification ensure all four and two-legged team members are prepared to work with patients. The national organization works with local groups to ensure they meet the behavioral requirements needed to work in an acute care hospital (which host patients with long-term or life-threatening circumstances), such as St. Joseph’s. In addition to health screenings, the dogs are continuously taught agility through socialization, control and coordination. Each dog must be observed and meet the criteria in order to be considered for the program, while all two-legged volunteers must be aware of each and every safety code (even canine CPR) in the facility to properly guide their pets and respond appropriately.

“Right now, our volunteers visit the hospital four days a week, and on average, each team ‘touches’ between 100-150 individuals each shift- this includes patients, families, visitors, and staff,” explains Karen. “Our goal is to have two teams, for mornings and late afternoons or evenings, seven days a week!”

DiDi McElroy, co-founder of the program, owner of California Canine and an Animal Behavioral Specialist, says that the most important attribute for each dog is the desire to seek attention from strangers. “This can’t be taught, it’s innate,” she says, comparing the training process to gymnastics due to the control it takes to work in such a setting. “We want this program to be the best, and we’ve got a really stellar handling team that is truly making such a difference [in the hospital],” she adds, “Little miracles happen during every visit!”

These miracles aren’t exclusive to the patients, but also, the St. Joseph’s staff who are faced with difficult circumstances every day. In fact, as Karen explains, the pets interact with just as many staff members as hospital visitors – because after all, they need the reprieve too. She compares it to taking a deep breath. “We started thinking it would be great for our families and visitors [to have a formal program], but what we’ve been surprised about is the staffs’ excitement. They’ve really become part of our cause.”

DSC_6883A Miracle  Everyday

Carolyn Lopez, a volunteer with St. Joseph’s pet visitation program, knows all too well what comfort her dog, Boo Boo, a rescued mixed breed, offers patients. Carolyn began volunteering with the hospital in 1995, and in 2005, became a patient. Now a cancer survivor, she relates to the many emotions that patients struggle with throughout their stay. It was during her time at the hospital that Carolyn realized the effect Boo Boo had on her mood, and the staff whose days he helped to brighten as well. She decided to share her experience, and began bringing Boo Boo in for visits as one of the first official therapy dogs at St. Joseph’s. “I wanted to give something back, because I’ve been there.” She adds, “As sick as some of the patients are, they really do perk up for a couple of minutes when we visit. Even in the worst of times, they smile. It takes them away from their illnesses.” But for Boo Boo, his visitations are also a therapeutic experience, as Carolyn describes, “He likes to give love and be loved.”

DiDi notes that this therapeutic influence that spans from staff members, to patients and families goes beyond physical evidence and is scientifically proven. According to Paws for People, a national non-profit organization dedicated to providing those in need with therapeutic visits from furry friends, benefits range from; decreased blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, and a release of endorphins such as oxytocin which results in a calming effect. In terms of mental health, the benefits range from lifting spirits, to decreasing feelings of loneliness while providing comfort, increasing socialization and lowering anxiety among much more. Not to mention, visits offer a distraction from the pain. In fact, therapy dogs have been proven to lessen pain levels, and therefore, recovery time.

The hospital is one of the first, including Doctors Hospital of Manteca, who recognize the importance of such a program. For these reasons and many more, pet therapy programs are gaining momentum as a proven form of rehabilitation.

DSC_7045Meet the Dogs

The entire team at St. Joseph’s volunteers hundreds of hours in hopes that they can make a difference by sharing their love. As each dog offers a completely different visiting experience, the diversity in personalities, traits and breeds mean there is something to suite everyone’s tastes. The youngest member of the group, Rianna Fleck, 16, who volunteers alongside her mother, says she loves seeing spirits lifted when they visit with her Border Collie, Ella, who connects with patients through her host of tricks that include spinning and dancing.

The program’s co-founder, DiDi, and Dante impress patients and staff members with Dante’s skillful tricks influenced by DiDi’s work in the police field. Yell ‘bang bang’ and Dante will play dead, and with a magic word, awakens!  As a behavioral specialist, Didi has extended her talents to extensively train and work with every dog in the St. Joseph’s program, and for that, she has gained reputation as a regional dog whisperer.

Sandee Wall, co-founder of the program, and her English Bulldog Zeus, are quite the popular pair at St. Joseph’s, especially with marines who stop to salute him. Zeus is known for his oh so loveable frown, and many talents that range from playing the piano to speaking on command, riding a skateboard (outside of the hospital) and dressing up in costumes for his visitors (his favorite is his hula skirt). His presence is certainly uplifting, explains Sandee, “People come up, grab him and cry…. It’s so meaningful.”

Jonnee Bardo’s partner, a three-year-old Golden Doodle named Molly, is calm and quiet. Her forte is sitting pretty, shaking hands, saying please, and playing games. Molly’s human-like eyes are endearing, and beg passerby’s for love and strokes of affection. She especially loves children, and has been known to calm children who are hospitalized and feel isolated. “Sharing Molly’s gentleness with others is a reward in itself,” says Jonnee.

After losing several family members in a short period of time, Ruthie Warren found comfort in her Standard Poodle, Lilly. Ruthie then made a promise to give back and share what Lilly gave to her – a helping paw in healing her grief. One gift that Lilly offers is her incredibly regal appearance. “There isn’t a person I walk past who doesn’t smile.” Lily is always in pink, sports painted nails and wears outfits made by Ruthie, who works as a dog groomer. Though Lilly is known as the “Diva” of the group because of her girly nature, she is far from intimidating. In fact, she connects with everyone, adds Ruthie, as she helps to calm fear immediately.

DSC_6867Gabby Di Battista-Capadona says that being a part of the program allows her to give back, donate and share the joy her four-year old Golden Doodle, Bailey, brings.  “It’s pretty life-changing. It is like having another family. This involvement has opened the doors to a world I never knew existed.” To her, there is nothing like knowing the comfort Bailey provides and acknowledges the staff’s positivity toward the program.

For team member Mike Crabb, the rewards found in being a part of the program is vast.  “It changes people’s lives, it’s sure changed mine.” This is in part due to the training the dogs receive, which helps them become a great companion for anyone. “That’s the key,” he says. “It’s their personality, they want to help.” His Havanese, named Desi (after Desi Arnaz) has participated in the program for three years with no plans to stop soon. Desi is a love machine ready to jump in bed and cuddle any welcoming patient. To Mike and all other team members, witnessing the positive impact of their canine companions gives them meaning beyond words. “I’m here because of what Desi does. I could care less if people know my name – he’s the important one.”

For Information About Becoming a Registered Therapy Dog, contact:


Dogs must be currently certified and registered by Therapy Dogs, Inc. A commitment to a standard weekly volunteer shift is required. Openings are limited. All dogs are groomed within 24 hours of hospital visits. Dogs need to be appropriate for acute care hospital setting, including:

  • Well behaved, no barking, licking, or lunging
  • Comfortable in elevators and with hospital sounds/noises (sometimes loud)
  • Complete New Volunteer Application & Orientation process (approximately 6 weeks)
  • Criminal Background Check clearance and health screening required

To support St. Joseph’s Therapy Dog Volunteer Program, tax-deductible donations are welcomed and can be made to St. Joseph’s Foundation.
1800 N. California St. Stockton, CA 95204 or StJosephsCares.org/Foundation
(209) 467-6347

1 Comment

  1. Hello

    Can you recommend a therapy dog trainer in san joaquin county? I am interested in placing my dog into servicing.

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