Thanks to training programs at the University of Kentucky, service and therapy dogs roam the halls and classrooms of campus. Most of them are Labradors and golden retrievers, adorable but well-behaved, intent on the business of cheering people up wherever they go.
Carmine, a black English Labrador retriever, is a therapy dog at UK; he is adorable, well-trained and serious about his work. It’s just that his work at the UK Gill Heart Institute is about more than cheering people up. It’s about getting people up as well.
At Gill, the philosophy is that even people who’ve had complicated heart surgery need to walk as soon as possible. Sometimes, Carmine can be the extra help they need, explained his handler, Katelyn King.
“They can forget about their problems and enjoy the animal and keep an eye on him,” King said. She went to Carmine’s training home in Michigan to get to know him. King is an expert on transitional care, which patients and doctors have to start planning soon after surgery. It made sense for her bring another element to heart rehabilitation.
On a recent weekday, heart patient John Strong walked an entire loop around his UK ward without an oxygen tube, surrounded by nurses, therapists and Carmine, who kept an eye on Strong with an occasional peek at the treat bag on King’s waist.
“This is the furthest you’ve walked without stopping,” therapist Traci McClintock told Strong. She loves the three days a week Carmine shows up. “It’s distracting” to patients, she said. “They stop thinking about their symptoms.”
Strong agreed. He’s from Waco in Madison County, an outdoorsman who loves dogs. “It was nice to know he was there,” he said.
Carmine lives with Susan Smyth, co-director of Gill, and can be a regular dog when he’s not working. But King has big plans for him. His cousin, Bolt, works at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital, and Bolt knows how to play balloon volleyball with patients to help their balance. King wants to teach Carmine to play, too.
King thinks UK will expand its use of unit-specific therapy dogs.
“It’s not just good for the patients,” she said. “He cheers up everyone on the floor.”