Sitting in her high chair after lunch time, Savannah Mielke lets out a little squeal when she spots Dr. Jack entering her hospital room. “She’s 20 months old and she adores Jack,” her mother, Autumn Mielke, of Rochester, explains.
Dr. Jack doesn’t arrive with a clipboard and a list of medical degrees behind his name. Patients instead are taken with his impeccable pedigree—full-blooded miniature pinscher—and his engaging bedside manner. It often includes jumping into the patient’s bed and nuzzling on command.
Dr. Jack is Mayo Clinic’s in-house therapy dog. The pint-sized pinscher and his escort, companion Marcia Fritzmeier, have visited close to 3,000 patients like Savannah during nine years of service in Mayo Clinic’s hospitals.
Dr. Jack has become a minor celebrity at Mayo just by doing his job. He gained fame as the subject of Mayo Clinic’s first children’s book, “Dr. Jack the Helping Dog.” More than 10,000 copies have been sold since its release last year. Dr. Jack also has his own Beanie Baby plush toy, found at Mayo Clinic gift shops.
Dr. Jack earned accreditation as a “facility-based assistance dog,” or therapy dog, during several years of training through Can-Do Canines of New Hope, Minn. He and Marcia work alongside doctors, nurses and other therapists. In fact, his visits to patients require a doctor’s order for treatment, and they typically are structured to achieve a medical goal. Dr. Jack sees eight to 10 patients each day when they make their rounds, Marcia says.
The reddish-brown pinscher is small, less than 30 pounds. At first, “(patients) think he’s a big Chihuahua,” Marcia jokes. He has big, soft eyes and ears that perk up suddenly on alert. When he’s on duty, he wears a red vest with a request: “Please don’t pet. I’m working.”
Jack came to Savannah’s room for a visit and a short walk. Savannah and Marcia each hold a leash to Dr. Jack, and the dog stays close to the toddler’s stroller as her mother rolls her up and down the corridor on the rehabilitation floor at Saint Marys Hospital. Savannah is recovering from an infection after brain surgery. She has been hospitalized for 48 days, most of it in intensive care.
Earlier in the day, Dr. Jack visited 3-year-old Saul Hedlund of Lewiston in the cardiac intensive care unit at Saint Marys. The boy is recovering from a heart transplant and other difficulties that resulted in loss of muscle control. Right now, “the only thing he can do is smile,” his mother, Susan, says. And he does break into a smile when he sees Jack!
Jack’s job at this time is to assist the youngster, whose fingers tend to curl up. So, his therapy includes stretching them out so Saul can pet the dog more open-handedly.
The best medicine
Often, Jack’s presence is therapy. “What we see is just the calming influence and the sense of home,” says Dr. Daniel Rohe, a Mayo Clinic rehabilitation psychologist.
But there also is some medical basis for therapy. In an essay in Dr, Jack’s book, Mayo Clinic oncologist Dr. Edward Creagan wrote that encounters with dogs and other pets often stimulate production of body chemicals that promote wellness.
“We have seen both children and adults receive significant benefits from animal assisted therapy,” says Dr. Brent A. Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic. “For example, patients who are struggling with rehabilitation following a stroke or accident often become much more engaged when Dr. Jack is brought into the session. And for young patients facing daunting treatments, having Jack by their side can be the best medicine.”
The reward for Marcia, a longtime Mayo Clinic employee, is simple: “Seeing Saul smile,” she says. “We get to be part of his progress, day by day…and that’s our payback.”
Bob Freund is a Rochester freelance writer.