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The healing power of dogs

Submitted to the Tribune

Miranda Miller, activity director with Barton Memorial Hospital’s Skilled Nursing Facility, has always strived to make the facility a home-like experience for the elderly residents. She never wanted the long-term care section of the hospital to feel too sterile.

While safety, quality care and cleanliness is always a top priority, so is making sure residents feel comfortable and that their new place of residence always feels like home.

“When an elderly patient enters our facility and this becomes their new place of residence, it’s important that I make this new home as inviting and warm as possible. That’s why visits with family members, planned activities with nursing staff and especially the popular Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe Pet Assisted Therapy program were my priorities,” said Miller.



Carol McInnis and her certified Pet Assisted Therapy dog, Maggie.
Provided/Miranda Miller

Miller went on to say that, “patients knew exactly when HSTT pet therapy teams were going to arrive and many of our residents had their family members bring them dog treats, so they could keep them in their rooms to hand out when those therapy dogs came in. It was one of the highlights of their day.”

When COVID-19 hit the U.S. in 2020, many long-term facilities shifted their model to “protect the residents in communal settings at all costs,” resulting in suspension of programs in order to minimize exposure. This new way of living for residents in long-term care eventually started to take its toll on patients.



Strict isolation protocols nationwide had many long-term residents feeling depressed and sad. Like many affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the normal routine of their life had shifted. Although Miller and her team of nurses and care staff worked hard to provide and increase daily activities, this change was very difficult for residents.

As COVID-19 progressed and the world began to learn more about it, Miller knew she needed to bring back that home-like environment to her patients, while keeping in line with all the COVID-19 protocols. Miller decided it was time to safely bring HSTT pet therapy teams back to her patients.


Community Engagement Director for HSTT, Erin Ellis stated, “we knew that many of the programs we had to place on hold during the initial outbreak of COVID would someday return. Our teams were ready and willing whenever the time came to get back to providing love and attention to long term residents who had been hit hardest by this pandemic.” Ellis went on to state, “it made sense to halt many of our programs while we all figured out how to safely live in this new COVID world.”

We all know the effects a dog can have on us, but when you’re a patient in a hospital, that pet visit brings so much more than just joy, it lifts spirits and brings life and energy back into their world. That’s what our Pet Assisted Therapy program does. Our teams bond with patients and these daily visits become part of their life and routine.”

Starting in June of 2021, HSTT pet therapy teams were allowed back into the facility once again, after the program had been on hold for over a year. Carol McInnis and her certified Pet Assisted Therapy dog, Maggie, were the first to return. Miller said that the moment Carol and Maggie walked through those doors, residents’ faces lit up and were overwhelmed with joy in seeing a dog back in their home.

Maggie visited with patients outside and was in no short supply of kisses and tail wags for her skilled nursing home friends and family. It was clear that not only did the residents miss her, but Maggie missed them as well.

The residents weren’t the only ones excited to have the dogs back—the nursing staff saw benefits also. One staff member stated, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing and it feels like home again with the presence of dogs being back! Things are starting to feel normal again.”

While the program remains flexible in accordance with hospital visitation rules, both Miller and Ellis look forward to seeing the smiles on many long-term residents’ faces during pet therapy visits.

To learn more about the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe’s Pet Assisted Therapy program, please reach out to HSTT’s South Lake Tahoe Program Manager, Mariel Berei at mariel@hstt.org, or visit hstt.org.


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