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Therapy dogs have paw-sitive impact on cancer patients

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Mary Tiedeman, 70, from Walker, Minn., pets Bailey, a therapy dog owned by Sara Tungseth, at the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center in north Fargo on Wednesday, May 15. David Samson / The Forum2 / 5
Therapy dog Bailey is eager to greet patients at the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center on Wednesday, May 15. David Samson / The Forum3 / 5
Sara Tungseth and her dog, Bailey, walk the hallways at the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center. David Samson / The Forum4 / 5
Matt Larson, 38, of Fargo spends time with therapy dog Bailey during a treatment session at the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center. David Samson / The Forum5 / 5

FARGO — Mary Tiedeman, of Walker, Minn., is a longtime dog lover, but after her pet died a few years back, she didn’t get another one.

It would be too tough, she said, because of the amount of time she spends driving back and forth for breast cancer treatment at Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo.

Now, Tiedeman can get a canine fix as part of the healing process.

Bailey, a 12-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and participant in a new pet therapy program, stopped in to see Tiedeman on Wednesday, May 15, as she received her chemotherapy infusion.

“I miss my dog, so this is like really good therapy for me. It brings back those little memories,” she said, with Bailey on her lap and a therapist massaging her feet.

Bailey and two other dogs are tasked with spreading light and love to patients like Tiedeman. Norman, a Yorkshire Terrier, and Zoe, a Shih Tzu, round out the team.

Bailey’s owner, Sara Tungseth, said she believes her dog has an innate ability to calm and heal.

“I mean, we put the vest on, and she knows she’s going to work,” Tungseth said.

Pet therapy is offered at Sanford Health with other aspects of care, but wasn't added to the cancer center until recently.

Jenna Linder, community programs director at Roger Maris, said there was some concern for patients whose immune systems are compromised.

“But the pros outweigh the cons,” Linder said.

Bringing smiles, easing pain

Tiedeman, 70, wasn’t the only patient to benefit from Bailey’s presence at the cancer center.

Elle St. Pierre, 6, of Bemidji, Minn., was there with her family to be treated for leukemia. Bailey snuggled up while the girl stroked the pup’s head.

“Her ears are soft,” she said.

Matt Larson, 38, of Fargo, who’s fighting testicular cancer, received a visit while hooked up to several tubes.

“What a nice dog,” he said, patting Bailey gently.

Bailey has been a certified therapy dog for eight years, showing desirable traits for the work at a young age.

Even as a puppy, she’d rather sit on someone’s lap than go outside and play with other dogs, Tungseth said. That demeanor carries over to her therapy work.

“When she sits in bed with someone, she knows to lay down and relax and not to move around. She just gets it, she really does,” she said.

Bailey and Tungseth volunteer for about 90 minutes at a time, once a week, at Sanford.

The dog's role is to bring smiles, ease pain and help patients forget about their medical issues, at least for a while, Tungseth said.

Body-mind connection

Therapy dogs can be trained to detect other medical issues, including low blood sugar and seizures, before the effects might be felt in people.

Chery Hysjulien, an oncology psychologist at Sanford, thinks similar abilities can apply to cancer.

In her previous job at a hospital in St. Cloud, Minn., she saw animals sit on or near a patient’s tumor, in a healing gesture.

“They may sense things we might not be able to sense,” she said.

Hysjulien often meets daily with cancer patients when they’re first diagnosed, then transitions to weekly, every two weeks, or once a month, as needed.

It’s important to treat their mind and body, not just the illness, she said.

That can be accomplished with hypnosis, imagery, mindfulness, massage, yoga and now pet therapy.

“Anytime we can invite another aspect of healing into the cancer center, it’s awesome,” Hysjulien said.