Nala walked excitedly beside her owner, Bethann Lizzi, one of hospice’s RN case managers. Her tail was wagging, as she knew she was going to visit with patients. As she walked down the hall, she spotted an old friend, Frank Bubbenmoyer. Frank immediately brightened up with a big smile as he bent over in his wheelchair to pet Nala. He talked to her, and even hand-fed her the treats Bethann gave to him. Bethann asked if he remembered Nala.

“Yes, yes, I remember her,” Frank said with a smile.

A few days a week, Nala can be seen following a nurse on the way to visit with patients like Frank, who are in need of something to brighten their day. Nala is a 15-month-old Golden Lab mix puppy with a special job. She serves different purposes for different patients, but most importantly, Nala brings joy and happiness to those she visits.

When Nala visits patients, accompanied by qualified medical personnel, they react positively and benefit from seeing, touching or talking to Nala. This is called animal-assisted therapy. Although Nala is not a certified pet therapy dog yet, she is well on her way and already provides countless benefits to the patients she visits.

Some of the benefits that come with animal-assisted therapy are improvements in blood pressure, heart rate, stress and anxiety for patients, as animals have a calming effect. Pet visitation can also help patients who struggle with depression and loneliness and can improve their perceived quality of health. One large benefit animals can bring to patients is the release of the hormone oxytocin (the “happy” hormone) in the brain, which relieves pain.

Bethann has seen improvements in patients’ moods and outlook when they interact with Nala.

“It’s something different, outside of their normal day, that they get to do that kind of brings them back to as much of a normal life as possible,” Bethann said.

Bethann tries to bring Nala to visit only those who seem like they would respond well to her or have responded well to her in the past. Sometimes patients who have a hard time interacting with people will seem to come alive when they interact with Nala.

“A lot of times, they’ll respond to pets more than they will to people. I have patients who I can’t get a response out of if I ask their name, but if I take their hand and I reach them out to Nala, they actually wake up,” Bethann said. “It’s a different response there, definitely.”

Bethann said she believes animal-assisted therapy helps patients with dementia the most, as it can help them recall what their lives were like at a time when they owned their own pet. There are patients who don’t always remember who Bethann is, but they’ll remember Nala and ask about her.

Some of the most heartwarming situations Bethann has seen between Nala and her patients are when Nala senses a person is not feeling well. She has seen Nala jump up on the bed to lay beside and comfort patients who are in pain or near the end of their lives.

“When people are hurting or something’s off, then [the visiting pets] go to that person more than any other person in the room, so the fact that Nala will jump up on the bed with my patients is pretty neat to see,” Bethann said.

Masonic Village Hospice plans to have Nala, and more animals in the future, continue to bring joy as well as memorable and calming experiences to patients and their families during an otherwise difficult time.