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Chihuahua Cheer – Therapy dogs reduce stress and anxiety for hospital patients

Bill Capasse and his teacup chihuahua Amie have near-celebrity status at Fairview Hospital. The pair is a trained and certified therapy dog team—the telltale sign is Amie’s tiny red Velcro vest—and they make the weekly trip from Ashley Falls to Great Barrington to visit with patients at the 25-bed hospital where Capasse was born.

“I picked Fairview because I grew up in Great Barrington, and I like seeing old neighbors and friends’ parents,” Capasse explains on a recent working visit. Amie is limited to an hour a day of work—a rule of thumb for all therapy dogs—and Capasse follows her lead. If she gets tired after a half hour, they go home early. But one thing remains consistent: By the time they leave, everyone Amie has greeted is laughing and smiling, proving pet therapy works.

Capasse and Amie, who have been volunteering for two years, are affiliated with the not-for-profit Canine Link Therapy Dogs, which trains and certifies therapy dog teams (handler and canine) in the tri-state area. The dogs visit individuals in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other facilities. Sandy Whiteman, who has been working as a medical technologist at Fairview for 45 years, was the first handler to bring a therapy dog to the hospital in 2004. She and her black-and-white hound, Sundae, worked for eight years with Therapy Dog International; she now brings Lily, her black-and-white beagle mix, to visit with patients when she is off the clock. “Being a pet owner is joyful; why not share that joy?” she says.

Therapy dogs can provide a welcome distraction to patients, reducing the stress and anxiety surrounding hospitalization. And pet therapy appears to be a growing trend. “Everyone loves the dogs,” says Wendy Dottavio, Fairview’s manager of volunteer services. The hospital employs six therapy dogs, with only one scheduled each day. “Everyone gets to have the spotlight,” she says.
“Amie’s here!” is the greeting from hospital staff and nurses, erupting as the elevator doors open on the second floor. After washing his hands and getting a fresh supply of clean towels, Capasse sets out to knock on doors. “Would you like to see Amie and say hi?” he asks an elderly male patient inside the first room.

“Sure. I used to have a therapy dog, a Shar-pei,” the patient shares. It’s an immediate connection. “You went through a lot of training for this,” he adds, scratching Amie between her clay-colored ears. “I never saw one patient—crotchety and miserable to start—not smile as we were leaving,” the patient recalls.

Then he turns to Amie and comments on her hefty size. “Shhh,” says Capasse, revealing that his seven-pound teacup Chihuahua is more in line with a soup-bowl. The two men share a chuckle, which, from where Capasse sits, is the most rewarding part of the job.

Amie started as a Diabetic alert dog, scent-trained to warn Capasse of high or low blood sugar level before it becomes dangerous. “She is so affectionate and friendly, I had to share her,” he says of the double-duty dog. At work, Amie is silent, barking only to alert her handler to high tones, which he does not hear, such as doorbells, alarms and sirens. The pair go everywhere together—from the grocery store to the barbershop—and every other Friday they go to Timberlyn Heights Rehabilitation and Care Center in Great Barrington, where Amie visits over 50 residents. She is also on call with Medical Reserve Corps, doing crisis work in the community. Last spring, after a fatal fire in Sheffield, the local elementary school was flooded with therapy dogs to help students through the traumatic loss of their classmates. “When the kids are with the dogs, that’s all they think about,” he says.

Elizabeth Marino, executive director of Canine Link, explains the steps to becoming a volunteer: “First comes an evaluation of your dog to see if they have the right temperament,” she explains, citing an understanding of simple commands as the starting point. Next comes a ten-week course in which dogs and handlers learn basic commands, become accustomed to elevators, and gain exposure to wheelchairs and walkers.

“Every dog has a certain talent, and our job is to find out what that is,” Marino says of the 30 teams currently volunteering with Canine Link. Matching a team with the facility where they will be most successful is key.

In Fairview’s waiting room, Amie proves she is more than adept at sniffing out those needing respite. A boy and his dad are taking a break from mom’s bedside after welcoming a new baby to the family.

“She looks like a penguin,” the three-year-old declares of the bigger-than-a-teacup chihuahua, stopping to imitate Amie’s distinctive waddle. He pets her, tentatively, before stooping down to kiss Amie on the head. Capasse takes a seat to enjoy the interaction. It is naturally unpretentious, both dog and child equally curious of the other. “Amie is the star; she does all the work.”

Little Teacup o’ Cheer

“You can change someone’s whole day in a few minutes. At least Amie can,” says Bill Capasse of his tiny chihuahua who leaves a big impression with patients at Fairview Hospital, where the two are regular visitors.




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