MercyHealth celebrates five years of pet therapy program

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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) -- It is said that animals can relax and comfort a person, but if you're in the hospital, you're pet most likely is not allowed to stay with you. A situation like that is what made this program a reality for some local patients.

MercyHealth is celebrating the fifth anniversary of a program that entails our canine friends.

"Pet therapy really helps to reduce the anxiety of our patients. Many times our patients might have their pets at home and they're not able to come visit, so this provides a really great comfort to them," said Rosalie England, Manager of Volunteer Services Department at MercyHealth.

Loving Tails Pet Therapy started five years ago when a cancer patient couldn't bring her dog to the hospital, so a nurse named Mary Ann Locsmondy made an arrangement to bring her dog in to comfort her.

The program is run by volunteers who dedicate their time and dogs to help other people.

"I do this because it's very rewarding. The patients, the visitors and the staff, it just seems to make them a little more relaxed while they're at the hospital here," said Bonnie Wojtas.

Wojtas is one of the volunteers who's been with the program since it started. Her dog Gracie is 13 years old and has been a therapy dog for seven years.

The program currently consists of 12 dogs and handlers. About half of them spent the day visiting patients and handing them Valentines gifts.

"It's just a very heartwarming experience to see the benefit that our patients get," said England.

England said people will come up and pet the dogs as they're walking into the lobby and throughout the hallways.

"Everybody seems to benefit, no matter what the age," added Wojtas.

And of course, the dogs received a Valentines treat as well.

Some of the patients said they can connect to the dogs better than some doctors and psychiatrists. Nurses who have seen the interaction say the bond between the dogs and the patients is quite magical.