Waggin’ tails, changing hearts: Therapy dogs bring calming, healing presence to patients

They say that dogs are a person’s best friend, and one St. James parishioner is showing just how impactful these four-legged friends can be.

Every Friday night, Marlene Dingmann, a member of St. James in Jacobs Prairie, visits St. Cloud Hospital with a canine companion in tow. She and her certified therapy dogs provide help and a bit of healing to patients, while also teaching about faith and service along the way.

Ria’s identification tag. (The Central Minnesota Catholic)

“I see the impact of the dogs, and it’s not me. I really think that God has a hand in this,” Dingmann said.

She began her therapy dog endeavors in 2005 with Billie, a golden retriever. Dingmann started volunteering at a local nursing home until Billie was able to be certified to work
in the hospital.

She and her husband were inspired to certify as many of their dogs as possible after seeing “what a benefit the dogs make in people’s lives.”

Since 2005, Dingmann has certified five dogs. Currently, she uses three for therapy: golden retrievers Clifford and Ria and one Boykin Spaniel named Basia. Two of her canine companions — Ella, who died in 2019, and Ria — were named Volunteers of
the Year at the St. Cloud Hospital in 2017.

“It’s a big deal because there are like 1,400 volunteers at the hospital,” Dingmann said.

She takes 7-and-a-half-year-old Ria to a local nursing home as well as the hospital. Though Ria visits every unit in the hospital except for surgery and the newborn intensive care unit, Dingmann said the dog’s favorite areas are the ICU and rehab.

“The people in the rehab unit are long term, like with traumatic brain injuries or accidents, so they’re there doing physical and occupational therapy,” Dingmann said. “Because we see those people for a longer amount of time, she connects with them.”

In the ICU, Ria’s impact on the patients is “amazing,” Dingmann said.

“It’s amazing watching [Ria] work with people that are in a coma,” she said. “You can actually watch the monitors if you take the patient’s hand and they are petting the dog. You can watch the blood pressure and heart rate”
settle down.

For the majority of the time, patients simply pet Ria as she provides a wagging tail and a calm and steady presence. But in the rehab unity, patients can walk or brush Ria, which helps them expand their range of motion, Dingmann said.

Dingmann’s dogs were certified through Pet Partners, and she also belongs to the Central Minnesota Therapy Animal Association, an organization that “provides qualified handlers and therapy animals to demonstrate and promote positive human/animal interaction,” according to its website.

Dorothy Bernardy, president of the Central Minnesota Therapy Animal Association, spoke of the “pretty amazing things we see when we work with our dogs.”

“It’s actually been proven …. people who have pain levels of nines and 10s, when the dogs went in and spent time with the person and that dog connected with the person … it will actually take their pain level down,” Bernardy said. “When they did a study, people went from nines and 10s down to twos to threes.”

There are also emotional and psychological benefits with the therapy dogs. Bernardy said she witnessed one patient, who hadn’t spoken for three years, begin to talk to the dog.

“A lot of times when you see people in the hospital, they’re carrying a lot of built-up stuff,” she said. “Oftentimes what will happen when we get our dogs into somebody’s lap, they’ll start petting and then all of a sudden they’ll start crying. They have no clue why they’re crying, but it’s like a release of all that’s been built up for so long in them.”

To be a part of the Central Minnesota Therapy Animal Association, animals must be registered with Pet Partners and must be a year old, have good temperaments, like people and have gone through basic obedience training.

In addition to bringing her dogs to the hospital, Dingmann also trains other therapy dogs and their handlers. Outside of her hours spent with her dogs, she has been an elementary music teacher in the Sartell school district for 33 years.

Dingmann and her dogs don’t just help people physically, but they also can help spiritually.

“If somebody wants to pray or wants me to pray for them, I certainly will,” Dingmann said. “Because we are a regional hospital, there are different faiths, so you just have to be respectful.”

The impact of Dingmann’s act of service, both in her bringing her dogs and in praying for patients, is remembered even after the patient leaves the hospital.

Marlene Dingmann and her dog, Ria.

“I’ve run into [patients] later, and they’ve expressed how much that meant to them,” Dingmann said.

And, for herself, Dingmann said the experience can be “very spiritual.”

“Sometimes I hardly say a word, and I just let the dog do their thing,” said Dingmann, who has logged over 2,900 volunteer hours since beginning her therapy dog work. Ria, who began in 2016, has provided therapy and companionship for over 2,000 people, while Ella, who died in 2019, saw more than 9,100 people.

Dingmann’s volunteer resume doesn’t end with her therapy dog work. She also directs her parish choir and chairs the church’s biggest annual fundraiser, Corn Fest.

Her volunteer work has helped her to realize the “importance of volunteering and giving of yourself.”

“You have to give. If you’re a part of a community, it’s really important that everybody gives of themselves,” she said.

And she also benefits personally when her furry friends volunteer.

“I’m getting out of it just as much as the people that are receiving a visit from Ria,” she said. “I could be dead tired from a day of teaching, and I feel so refreshed when I’m done with my shift on Friday night because I know we’re making a difference.”

Learn more

Got a four-legged friend you think would make an excellent therapy dog? Visit petpartners.org or cmtaa.org to learn more.

Top photo: Marlene Dingmann and Ria. (The Central Minnesota Catholic)

Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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