An older woman, sitting with two friends in the lobby of Delaware Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Delaware Avenue spots the large black dog standing outside the records office, where he spends his days.
"Fletcher!" she calls out. "Fletcher, come here!"
Hearing his name, Fletcher, a black lab/boxer mix, lopes across the lobby toward the woman, who sits with her hand outstretched. Head low, mouth relaxed, tail wagging faster, he reaches her and plops his head into her lap. She strokes his head as he looks up at her lovingly.
Fletcher, owned by Krista Wolford, the director of medical records, is one of three dogs who spend their days inside the Delaware Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, brightening the lives of residents, providing a topic of conversation for visitors, and "making the place seem more homey," says Kate Wannemacher, director of nursing. Her American bulldog, Cooper, makes the rounds with her each morning, then spends his day in the therapy department.
The three also collect a few dog biscuits along the way. "He gained about 10 pounds right after I started bringing him here, but now he's lost about five of those," says Dan Zielinski, assistant director of nursing, about Malachi, his 4-year-old Doberman/Rottweiler mix.
Fletcher, now a year old, was the first dog to come to work at Delaware Nursing, which has some 200 residents in its long-term, short-term rehab and hospice areas. His arrival as a pup last fall had an immediate positive impact on residents, says Wannemacher, who describes herself as "a real dog person." She has two elderly pugs and two cats at home. She and Wolford took Fletcher throughout the building to meet the residents, many of them former dog owners.
"They would pet him and their faces would light up. It was adorable," says Wannemacher. "They knew he was in medical records, so people would come by in their wheelchairs or with their walkers and pet him."
Wannemacher's observations have been supported by studies. In one of the first, from 2001, two St. Louis researchers - Marian R. Banks of the Veterans Administration Medical Center and William A. Banks of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine - found that residents of a long-term care facility felt less lonely after just six weeks of brief visits with therapy dogs. In the Banks study, which was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, 45 residents who had cared for pets when they were younger all reported feeling less lonely after weekly visits with therapy dogs.
In January, Wannemacher bought a fawn-colored American bulldog puppy, named him Cooper and began bringing him to her job. Now 9 months old, Cooper weighs 103 pounds, has a massive head and resembles a mastiff.
When they were young, Fletcher and Cooper romped together at Delaware Nursing, entertaining residents and visitors. But since Cooper now outweighs Fletcher by some 30 pounds, it's not an even match. Malachi, the oldest, doesn't care for the two adolescents' energy, so the three never interact.
During his leashed morning tour of the facility with Wannemacher, Cooper nudges some residents to wake them and greets others who are preparing for breakfast. Then he spends his day in the large therapy room, where residents walk with help and use equipment to retain or regain their strength and abilities. Wannemacher visits Cooper throughout the day to check on him and take him outside. When he gets tired of mixing with people, Cooper retreats into a plastic-walled pen that surrounds a comfy bed.
"Cooper is loved by all the residents," says occupational therapist Gloria DiCosmo. "Saturdays here are crazy, because people complain that Cooper is not here."
On the third floor, when Zielinski "saw what a positive effect Fletcher and Cooper were having," says Wannemacher, he asked if he could bring in Malachi, whom Zielinski took in when his daughter in Florida could no longer keep him. Now Malachi spends his days behind a baby gate in Zielinski's office. The laid-back dog is "pretty much a throw rug," says Wannemacher.
"I have a couple of residents who actually think he is their dog," says Zielinski. Several of them ask their visitors to bring dog treats so they can drop them inside the gate for Malachi. The dog provides "a more homelike atmosphere," says Wannemacher."The residents light up when they see him."
The unit Zielinski supervises, which is the biggest with 80 beds, "has a lot of people who don't come off the unit a lot," says Wannemacher. "One lady who barely leaves her room, and will not leave the floor at all, will come out of her room and go to Dan's office with dog biscuits every day to feed the dog."
When Cooper turns a year old in a few months, Wannemacher plans to have him tested for therapy dog certification. It's safe to say that he will have far more on-the-job experience than other therapy dog candidates.
"Cooper has spent extra time with two residents at the end of their lives," says Wannemacher, special encounters that were arranged due to the residents' lifelong love for animals. "He lay right in bed with one for a couple of hours as the resident petted him."
Another man, who suffered from a fast-progressing terminal illness, enjoyed Cooper's visits even as he lost his ability to enjoy much of anything else. "Cooper had to adjust his behavior as this man slowed down," says Wannemacher. "He would spend as much time with the man as he needed, sometimes it would be 10 minutes, sometimes it would be two minutes."
People in the dementia unit may not have much short-term memory, but they recognize a dog and enjoy hearing about him, "I try to get up there once a day with Cooper," says Wannemacher.
Many rehab patients who live briefly in Delaware Nursing while they recover their strength after an accident, surgery or illness, praise the dog's presence. Wannemacher says, "They spend a lot of time in the therapy department, where Cooper is, and when we ask them on the exit interview, 'How was your stay, what was the most memorable thing?' they say 'Cooper.' 'Who was the best employee?' 'Cooper.' "
None of the patients have been fearful or uncomfortable around the three big dogs. "Fletcher and Malachi are in their offices behind gates, and Cooper has a gated enclosure he can go into in the therapy area, so if a patient is afraid, which thankfully we haven't had, he could stay in the enclosure," she says. "When they are walking through the halls they are leashed."
Visitors also like seeing the dogs, says Wannemacher. "For them it's a conversation piece; it gives them something to talk about, because sometimes residents don't have too much to talk about."