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A patient’s best friend

Morris canine improving life for hospital patients

OTTAWA, Ill. — A good-tempered canine from Morris recently paid a visit to patients at OSF Saint Elizabeth Medical Center.

Escorted by her owners Don and Debi Duggins, Bella was enlisted to help with Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT).

AAT is not an entirely new concept to OSF Saint Elizabeth. The program, however, had been on hiatus for some time.

It was recently resurrected due to a chance meeting of the Duggins and Michelle Carson, a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist with the hospital.

“I had been trying to locate a trained therapy dog, and the Duggins basically fell into my lap,” Carson said. “I’d definitely like to gain a few more dogs to increase the frequency of visits, but I’m happy with having one to start. Bella has been a great addition!”

Carson, a staff member within the Inpatient Behavioral Health CHOICES unit, continued to explain that trained therapy dogs like Bella can help to improve patients’ social, emotional and cognitive functioning.

Having a visit from a dog during a hospital stay can also offer much-needed fun and relaxation.

As trained handlers who oversee Bella during patient visits, the Duggins attest that dogs have a calming effect on patients. They’re also known to help lower blood pressure.

“We’ve been certified and offering pet therapy with Bella since 2010,” they said. “Working with a therapy dog is strictly voluntary, and we often do it on the weekends. We visit other hospitals along with area nursing homes, schools and libraries.”

The Duggins believe that Bella — age 6-1/2  — is a great fit for the job, explaining that a Newfoundland is an extremely docile, friendly breed that does well with children. 

Despite her 110-pound size, Bella is gentle and well-behaved.

Debi goes on to say that their love of dogs and her career in nursing inspired the couple to give pet therapy a try when they acquired Bella as a pet.

“It’s very enjoyable and rewarding,” she said.

A variety of criteria including special testing, certification and up-to-date immunizations are required for dogs (and handlers) wishing to offer pet therapy. Therapy Dogs International, a renowned national organization specializing in testing and certification, is a great source for those looking to get involved. Their website is

Carson stresses that while she is looking to add another couple dogs to the rotation, “I must clarify that individuals may NOT bring their dogs or other pets to our hospital for a visit. Only approved animals like Bella that are used for our AAT program are acceptable according to our health codes.”

For more information about Carson’s program, or to see about offering your canine’s services, email or call (815) 431-5447.

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