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Therapy dogs exchange pooch smooch after 'wedding' at Tampa General Hospital

TAMPA — For five years — or 35 years, depending on your species — Chicklet waited.

The demure chihuahua was content with her long-term boyfriend, a Lab named Blake, but she was ready for the next step.

"She was waiting on that ring," joked Chicklet's owner, Pam Dickens.

The two therapy dogs took that step on Thursday morning, walking down an aisle at the Tampa General Hospital child life center surrounded by friends they've made volunteering at the pediatric unit — kids with casts, masks, IV connections and smiles.

"You may now sniff the bride," announced pediatric social worker Rosana Rivera, who holds a notary license and read the therapy dogs' vows.

Oohs, ahhs and tail wags.

"It was pretty surprising," said wedding guest Patrick Shane Kelly, 13, who got a new kidney at TGH this week. "I bet they're like, 'I'll do this for cake.' "

Ten-year-old Simon Rios, who has been at TGH almost a month recovering from an accidental gunshot wound, said his favorite part was when the dogs kissed.

"It was funny," Rios said. "I never thought I'd see a dog get married."

Chicklet and Blake have been visiting TGH and Moffitt Cancer Center every Thursday morning for about five years, Dickens said. She and Blake's owner, Ruth Cowan, met when they both worked as veterinary technicians and have been volunteering with therapy dogs together for about 15 years.

Stephanie Reynolds, a child life specialist in the TGH pediatric center, said she's seen the benefit of the visits firsthand.

"It's extremely therapeutic," Reynolds said. The pediatric patients "find comfort in something familiar."

Reynolds said the dogs often sit with the children during unpleasant procedures, like injections. The distraction eases the pain.

Another wedding guest, 8-year-old Robert Wendt, met the dogs when he spent six weeks at TGH with an E. coli infection.

"The dogs would hold my hand when I was getting blood drawn," Robert said.

"It's good for socialization too," Reynolds said. "All the kids come down to the playroom to see the dogs, and they can meet each other."

There is also evidence that pet therapy may decrease blood pressure and anxiety, according to a survey from Therapy Dogs International.

Reynolds believes it.

"If there's a child who's extremely anxious about something, I'll definitely bring the dogs in," she said.

And it's not just at TGH.

St. Joseph's Hospital, University Community Hospital, Bayfront Medical Center, All Children's Hospital, Hernando-Pasco Hospice and LifePath Hospice in Tampa have all employed therapy dogs for years, according to employees.

They visit the young and old, those with cancer or in rehab, or those who need a reminder that life's not all surgery or syringes. They stay with patients in their final days of life, and those who have just lost someone.

"They meet needs that really can't be met in other ways," said Brenda Saling, who trains and certifies dogs at her Brandon school, Saling's Obedience. "They just give love, affection, for nothing. They just do it for nothing."

Though Saling offers classes teaching basic commands and good dog behavior, she said therapy dogs are born, not made. They require certain traits that can't be taught — calm, but not shy. Outgoing, but not jumpy.

And, of course, "It's got to kiss you for nothing."

In order for a dog to be certified, it must first be tested by one of a few different organizations. Saling works with Therapy Dog International, founded in 1976 in New Jersey, which now has more than 19,000 dogs registered. Chicklet and Blake are certified through Project Pup, a Largo group. They've also earned Canine Good Citizens certifications through the American Kennel Club.

Now they can add one more certificate to the list — the canine marriage license stamped with their inked paws. Still, they will continue living apart, Chicklet with Dickens, Blake with Cowan.

And the honeymoon? Dickens and Cowan said they were so busy planning the wedding they hadn't thought about it much. But that's no problem in beachy Florida, Dickens said.

"Chicklet does have a cute little bikini."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Therapy dogs exchange pooch smooch after 'wedding' at Tampa General Hospital 06/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 11:06am]

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