Some people might be hesitant to visit a therapist with big, floppy ears and a little, wet nose; but the patients in the Rehabilitation Unit at Saint Marys don't mind — in fact, Jack is the hands-down favorite with his soft, brown fur and bright yellow uniform.
"Dr. Jack," as he's called by his colleagues, is a miniature pinscher and the first facility-based service dog (or therapy dog) to join Mayo Clinic's rehabilitation team.
When he's not helping a patient, you can see Jack traipsing through the hospital, lifting spirits. "I observed that Jack was a natural at seeking out those that needed him the most. I couldn't train him to do that — it's a gift," says Marcia Fritzmeier, Jack's "mom." "Jack's compassion for people is unbounded and he never forgets his patients."
Marcia serves as the central point of contact for the program. She started Jack on his "career" as a facility-based service dog with special training through Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota (HSDM).
Jack provides a variety of services. When patients "take Jack for a walk," he is providing motivation for physical activity and therapy. When patients tell Jack, "Give me five," or "Jack, whisper," they are getting speech therapy while enjoying some fancy tricks. When patients pet Jack or just hold him in their arms, he helps relieve stress and bring back a sense of comfort and normalcy, something a hospital setting can take away.
Although pet visitation has been a part of hospital and rehabilitation activities for quite some time, Jack is unique addition to the team at Mayo Clinic. Patients of all ages come back to see Jack after they've been released from the hospital. "Jack really becomes a part of the patients' lives when they are here," says Fritzmeier. "He's able to fill a need that patients don't get anywhere else."
Fritzmeier recalls one patient who had a brain tumor that affected his speech, making communication very difficult. After the patient completed speech therapy accompanied by Jack, one of his family members wrote a letter to Marcia, expressing her gratitude for Jack's help: "On some of dad's worst days, Jack would simply curl up next to him," she wrote. "Dad petted and talked to Jack, and it made Dad feel so much better. On his better days, they would play. Jack brightened not only my Dad's spirits, but also the whole family's outlook." Jack has helped many other patients recover both emotionally and physically.
"If Jack can't get the patients to smile, all hope is lost," says Fritzmeier.
Fritzmeier never regrets the time she spent training and caring for Jack, or her time spent volunteering for the program and tracking his hours. He must work 160 hours per year to stay certified).
"Having a facility-based service dog takes time and commitment, but it results in lasting friendships. With their unconditional and nonjudgmental love, facility-based service dogs give a wonderful and life-changing gift," says Fritzmeier. "It's been a dream come true to work with Jack."