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Spotlight: Tears of joy, smiles greet Sonja the therapy dog

“She helps people be in the present,” said owner and surgeon Rafael Andrade, MD.
Sonja, a 6-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, is a certified therapy dog. She and her owner, Rafael Andrade, MD, regularly visit patients at University of Minnesota Medical Center.

When Rafael Andrade, MD, and his wife first purchased Sonja, a Bernese Mountain Dog mix, they were just looking for a companion.

But when Andrade, a thoracic surgeon at University of Minnesota Medical Center, saw that Sonja was easy going and didn’t frighten easily, he decided to take her to training to become a certified therapy dog. Now, Sonja delivers hope and healing to surgery patients.

We asked Andrade to tell us about Sonja’s therapy visits—and the special treat she gets at the end of her rounds.

Tell us about her responsibilities as a therapy dog. What role does she play in patient care?
She relaxes people and she helps people be in the present. They forget what’s going on around them for a brief period of time, and they pet her and they give her treats, and she shakes hands at the bedside. It’s a nice basic simple interaction, and like any interaction with pets it just helps you forget about everything else. 

She usually makes rounds [with me] on my patients [at University of Minnesota Medical Center] on Saturdays, twice a month. In an hour she gets tired. We usually visit them all, even those in the ICU. You don’t get many happy memories from any hospital stay, and it’s nice to have something to brighten your day. The patients who are here for longer, they just look forward to the next weekend and the next visit.

Why did you decide to have Sonja certified as a therapy dog? Tell us about the certification process.
[The training] is an hour and a half every time, once a week for six weeks. They train both the dog and the owner, and they give you homework that you work on until the next class. The therapy dogs have to be able to be neutral around other neutral dogs. They have to be able to heel and sit and be obedient and keep track of what you’re doing. They can’t be scared of wheelchairs or IV poles. They have to be friendly to strangers petting them. 

At the end of the course there is a test that you have to schedule. Two organizations do this test, and we went through Pet Partners. We got a certificate that’s valid at most hospitals.

What is one of your favorite memories from your therapy work with Sonja?
A patient was walking in the hallway and when she saw Sonja, she went down to her knees to pet her. She was crying because she was so happy, and it just struck me. It was a random patient, I didn’t even know her.

What do you love about the University of Minnesota Health community?
I think there are people here who do extra things for their patients, and I think those things sometimes get overlooked. I see that in several other physicians I work with; they really go for that extra personal touch or care, or they just have a way with patients. A simple example is the orchestra that plays in the University of Minnesota Medical Center lobby; some of them are physicians and other health care providers.

What does Sonja enjoy doing when she’s not hard at work helping patients?
She loves going on walks and hanging out and she likes sitting by my wife and I at the lake. She’s got a good life. She gets ice cream at the end of every Saturday when we’re done with rounds. It’s vanilla-flavored.