Baxter is a 10-month-old dog from Fort Smith, Arkansas. But the King Charles Cavalier Spaniel is more than just a very good boy. He’s also a certified therapy dog who spends 2 hours a week greeting patients, families, and staff at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith in Arkansas.
Of course, Baxter’s good deeds wouldn’t be possible without the help of his owner, Robert Mercer, a retired police officer who facilitates Baxter’s gig as the hospital’s first therapy dog.
“Everything just kind of came together this summer,” said Mercer. “We hope to get a whole slew of volunteers, but he’s the start, and I think he’s a good start.”
Therapy dogs help hospital patients in many ways. Therapy dogs are known to boost patients’ moods, comfort, and emotional health, reduce anxiety and loneliness, and provide comfort during a hospital stay.
These are all reasons why Mercy Hospital Fort Smith — where Baxter’s dog mom, Cathy Mercer, works as a nurse practitioner — decided to implement a therapy dog program.
But Baxter helps hospital staff just as much as he does the patients. Therapy dogs are known to help medical workers manage their stress, which is more important than ever as hospitals remain overwhelmed by the co .vid- 19 pan .demic.
“It really is a huge deal to them, to be honest,” said Jenni Powell, the hospital’s volunteer manager. “We bring Baxter by and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!”
Baxter only started this gig in August 2021, but the puppy has already become the hospital’s most popular volunteer. The conscientious pup also dons a leash during his rounds, bathes before every session, and rides in a custom cart that keeps him from getting tired — and places him at an ideal height for petting.
PHOTO: MERCY HOSPITAL FORT SMITH
One of Baxter’s biggest achievements, according to Mercer–who is debating increasing the dog’s number of weekly visits–is bringing cheer to the sterile hospital environment.
“I think he brings a little of the outside world in, and I think that’s nice,” said Mercer. “Everybody else is disease-focused, from the doctors to the nurses to the families. Baxter could care less. He just wants to lick your face. It’s kind of nice to see that.”
Baxter’s owner also hopes the dog’s popularity will encourage other pups (and their owners) to volunteer for the therapy dog program.
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“We’re not looking for volunteers with perfect show dogs or perfect obedience,” Mercer said. “Dogs should be receptive to strangers and not prone to nipping or barking, and they should be non-reactive to other dogs.”