A floppy-eared, long-haired dachshund named Conner is meandering along the progressive care floor of Mease Countryside Hospital. He's at the end of his leash, gently pulling along his owner, 67-year-old Bob Boess.
Voices call out to the furry animal as owner and pet stroll along. A 95-year-old woman recovering from a heart attack takes Conner onto her lap. Then the dog rides a gurney all the way to the operating room, stretched alongside another of his fans. A blue-uniformed medical technician, charts tucked under her arm, reaches down to cuddle him.
Conner is one of eight dogs at Mease Countryside, but dozens of other dogs can be spotted in the halls of five other Morton Plant Mease hospitals. They're participating in a dog therapy program called Caring Paws, which enables dogs and owners to bring a little cheer to the ailing and their families.
"About 50 dogs have come through the program since it started in 1999," said Ruth Anne Achterhof, a volunteer specialist at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. "Our first dog, a Maltese, had given 1,093 hours of service by the time he passed away last year."
Lois Milne, director of volunteers in all five hospitals, encourages others with pets to come on board.
"We need dogs in all our hospitals," she said, "but we have expectations for appropriate behavior."
Before signing on to Caring Paws, man's best friend must be tested for good behavior at licensed agencies, such as Project Pup, headquartered in Seminole, and Therapy Dog International, which rotates testing stations throughout the United States.
Boess, of Dunedin, enrolled Conner in a TDI testing program 14 months ago at a community center in Brooksville. The four-hour session included a variety of tasks. Evaluators watched the dogs to see how they reacted to a strange environment. They dropped bacon bits on the floor to see if the dogs would stop eating on command, and they monitored the animals' behavior when the owners left the room.
Reaction to noise was a key factor as well.
"A number of women came in with metal pots and spoons and banged on the pots," said Boess. "The dogs that didn't react to the noise passed the test."
Palm Harbor resident Donna Robbins, 61, took her 6-year-old Shih Tzu, Maximus, for behavioral testing at Project Pup in May. After the death of a close friend who had loved "Max," Robbins decided to use her pet to bring comfort to others who were sick.
The testing Max received was similar to that administered by TDI.
"We went to a nursing home in Largo to see if Max was good with people in wheelchairs," Robbins said, "and to see how he reacted to the noise of someone dropping a walker."
The little gold-and-white bundle of fur passed the test. Robbins now takes him to Mease Countryside one morning a week, pulling him along in a small cart.
Boess and Robbins concur that most patients welcome a visit with their pets. Still, they usually ask first.
Various breeds can be spotted making the rounds, including a yellow Lab, a poodle, a Labradoodle and a chihuahua.
"It's not that one breed is better than another," said Milne. "It's all about temperament."
"The key to a great therapy dog is that the animal is born with a good heart," said Boess. "If the dog doesn't have the heart, he shouldn't do therapy."