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OUR ANIMALS, OURSELVES: Have you had your Hannah hug today?

March 29, 2019
By JEFFREY JENSEN , Lake Placid News

She needed a Hannah Hug.

We had just stepped foot into the local pet shop in Greendale, Wisconsin when a young female employee left her Goldendoodle client and clippers stranded on the salon table and rushed out at us, immediately kneeling down to get close to Hannah. Tears gushed quickly and covered her face as she looked up.

"When I saw you come in, I just had to come out and talk to you!" she said, managing an easy smile through her apparent grief as she clung to my 7-year-old golden retriever, a certified therapy dog. "This is Hannah, right? A couple of weeks ago you visited my mom on the second floor at St. Luke's Hospital ... and, um, she just died a few days ago. ... I can't tell you how much that visit meant to Mom and my whole family. It made her day and lifted her up and was so special and so appreciated. Thank you! I need my own Hannah hug right now!"

Article Photos

Penny is the receptionist for St. Luke’s outpatient rehabilitation clinic who recently lost her husband and needs her Hannah hugs.
(Photo provided)

And of course, true to form, Hannah complied as she always does and gently planted one paw on each of the young girl's shoulders and sat up straight and gazed around the room with her predictable smile with the eyelids contentedly at half mast, the proud epitome of "divalicious."

By way of introduction, my name is Jeff Jensen. Hannah has been my pet since she was 8 weeks old, and I've been the invisible guy at the end of the leash since her certification as a therapy dog five years ago. I'm fine with that role. Hannah has (rightly) attained rock star status since we began to visit Milwaukee's St. Luke's Hospital two or three times a week in the last year or so. She provides joy and a loving diversion to patients, staff and visitors alike and seems born to play this role. Hannah shines. A doctor stopped me in the hallway recently and engaged in small talk about animals. Before parting, he made a point to gesture toward her, now typically evoking adoration by passersby and commented with a knowing smile, "You know, she's better medicine than the drugs I prescribe my patients."

For sure, after riding shotgun with Hannah during five years of therapy missions and many hundreds of human encounters in various settings, I have no doubt she has not only brought smiles and lifted spirits, but also benefitted many in all the ways scientific studies have shown: lowering blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health, lowering overall physical pain and helping to release calming endorphins (oxytocin). Studies have even shown that the act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response, which is believed to reduce the amount of medication needed by some people, a direct affirmation of the doctor's remark.

Still, the lingering question remains whether Hannah and other therapy animals are sentient beings and have awareness and sensitivity to respond in a conscious way to the emotional and physical needs of humans. Or do they simply bask in all the attention heaped upon them?

To be sure, Hannah doesn't need to be in a health-care setting to turn on the charm. She'll greet total strangers on the street with the same warm hugs that she gives patients and her favorite nurses at St. Luke's. But still, in Hannah's case at least, I've seen evidence of that sentience on more than one occasion.

For a brief time, children signed up to read books to Hannah at the local library. One day a 7-year-old autistic boy, Nick, showed up to read. Nick first stood antsy for several minutes, displaying the repetitive behaviors common with autism. But eventually he calmed down, settled in sitting cross-legged on the floor and opened his book. Hannah took notice. She immediately nestled in and lay next to Nick, her body touching his. Nick, now relaxed and focused, successfully got through the opening lines. And when he turned the page to continue, gently took Hannah's paw and placed it in the crease of the book, holding it in place. Hannah calmly cooperated throughout the process, page after page, and a genuine bond was formed. An example of being sentient? I have to believe Nick's perceptive mother shares my own opinion.

Early on, Hannah's extraordinary gifts and talents for impacting and inspiring lives were impossible to ignore, and I knew I had to share her with others. Over the years, we've visited hospice settings, assisted-living homes, schools, libraries and nursing homes in addition to our current hospital assignment. Hannah's uncommon ability (instinct?) to captivate and comfort is a true gift and distinctly fills a void in people's lives.

Rest assured, I'm convinced a vast army of new friends believe Hannah's motivations are sentient ones of benevolence, empathy and compassion.



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