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Therapy dog returns to Huntington Hospital for the first time since pandemic began

Three-year-old golden retriever Hazel headed back to Huntington

Three-year-old golden retriever Hazel headed back to Huntington Hospital to resume her appointments for the first time since the pandemic began last March. She is a trained therapy dog. Credit: Barry Sloan

Hazel often gets questions and stares when she walks through the halls of Huntington Hospital.

"Is she an employee?" Some ask, looking at her Northwell Health ID badge.

"No," replies Gary Zelner, walking alongside her. "She’s a volunteer."

Hazel is a 3-year-old golden retriever. She’s a certified therapy dog who has been bringing smiles to Huntington Hospital since she was just 13 months old.

Last month, Hazel and her handler were welcomed back to the hospital for the first time since the pandemic began.

Hazel is following in the pawsteps of her older sister, Allie. She worked as a therapy dog for four years at the hospital before she died in 2019. Zelner, Hazel’s handler, said she’s picking up right where her sister left off.

"When she’s working, she’s very focused on the people she visits with," said Zelner, of Northport. "I’m very proud she can do the work she does."

Hazel used to meet with patients and staff individually, showing off her obedience skills with the basic commands of sit, stay, down and come, Zelner said. She is patient and affectionate as people pet her and talk to her during the sessions.

Trained by the Suffolk Obedience Training Club, Zelner said he always knew Hazel was capable of doing this work. He said it all has to do with a dog’s upbringing and training. Zelner added that sometimes the elderly or people who aren’t used to dogs can be intimidated at first sight, but that fades away once they interact with her.

"It’s amazing to see the reactions," Zelner said.

Then came the coronavirus outbreak last March, causing the hospital to pause Zelner and Hazel’s weekly visits. Her trips to local nursing homes halted, too.

And Hazel’s other community service was shifted to virtual platforms: before the pandemic, she took part in a children’s reading program at Northport-East Northport Public Library. She would sit with children, from preschool age through fifth grade, and they took turns reading to her and petting her.

"The virtual visits are kind of strange because the dog is just sitting there with the camera in front of them," Zelner said.

But Zelner lets Hazel sit on the couch during these sessions, which is a special treat.

"When the children are reading to her, they’ll stop and hold up the book to camera so Hazel can see the pictures," he said. "It’s been a lot of fun, but I wish we could do it in person. I’m looking forward to the day we can do that again."

When someone is sick or feeling upset, Zelner said Hazel picks up on that and gives them extra attention. This ability is very important during hospital visits.

"Sometimes people are very troubled; their loved ones aren’t feeling well," Zelner said. "She brings a smile to their face and brings them out of their worries. It’s just a feel-good thing."

There are many benefits to interacting with therapy dogs, said Terri Harrison, a registered nurse at Huntington Hospital. She works in the coronary care unit and has been taking care of COVID-19 patients since last March.

"When Hazel comes to visit, it’s kind of like taking a deep breath," said Harrison, of Northport. "It allows you to reset yourself and just be in the moment with her, and not project into the future."

Since Hazel hadn’t been in the hospital in about 10 months, Zelner wondered if she would remember all her friends.

Once she arrived, she didn’t skip a beat: "People she was friendly with last year, she was friendly with again."

And needless to say, hospital staff were happy to see her return. Wearing her ID badge clipped to a bandanna, Hazel sat calmly while employees gave her pets and belly rubs all morning long.

For Dr. Gary Stone, director of pathology and the laboratory at Huntington Hospital, Hazel’s visits are a high point of his workweeks. When she arrives, he always makes sure to "sit on the floor and huddle with her."

Hazel has been cleared to resume her weekly visits with staff at the hospital. Hopefully soon, she’ll be able to meet with patients again, too.

"Dogs teach us a lot," Harrison said. "They teach us about resilience, and how to be present."

After a long battle with COVID on the front lines, Stone said Hazel’s return is meaningful to hospital employees.

"Besides just being able to relax us, it’s actually a symbol we’re getting over the hump," he said. "There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and Hazel represents that light a little bit."

With Barry Sloan

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