Not just anyone has access to the back rooms of Community Regional Cancer Center in northeast Fresno, where therapists, nurses and others are busy as they help patients battle cancer.
Skarlet has access everywhere.
The hospital ID swipe card dangling from the golden retriever's collar says it best: Skarlet, therapy dog.
Skarlet has been making the rounds at the center with handler/owner Pam Kennedy on Wednesday mornings for nearly five years -- about half of Skarlet's life. Skarlet cozies up to patients in the waiting rooms on the radiation/infusion side of the center and presses her nose close to patients in the back rooms where they receive infusions.
"It's nice; it makes me happy," says Rubit Cortes of Madera, who visited the center for the first time for treatment this past week.
Since the 1980s, there have been significant advances in the field of animal-assisted therapy and the use of therapy dogs, according to the American Kennel Club.
A nonprofit organization, the Good Dog Foundation, works to raise awareness about the therapeutic value of the human-animal bond. The organization reports that therapy dogs work to aid the healing process as well as enhance the quality of life for people battling health issues.
To become registered as a therapy dog, the dogs must complete weeks of training with their handlers. Skarlet has gone on to achieve special titles for her work, including Canine Good Citizen, Rally Novice, Companion Dog and Companion Dog Excellent.
Kennedy, a retired school teacher/curriculum coordinator with Sanger Unified School District, first worked with Skarlet's mother, Sparkle, as a therapy dog at Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno.
Sparkle got so busy that Kennedy had Skarlet registered. They rotated their shifts.
Then Sparkle died of cancer in October 2011 -- and Skarlet stepped up. Now, Skarlet visits only Community Regional Cancer Center.
Registered therapy dogs must be groomed and bathed before each visit. So Kennedy bathes Skarlet on Tuesdays in a tub in the garage.
"She's not too happy about it, but it's warm water," says Kennedy with a smile.
Therapy dogs also must have annual check-ups for parasites. The mention of the word "parasite" prompts Kennedy to whisper to Skarlet, "You don't have parasites."
Last Wednesday, Skarlet scooted into Community Regional Cancer Center all dolled up.
"Hey, Skarlet's here," a staff member shouted.
Patient Marciela Wong sat in the waiting room for a follow-up visit. Her face lit up when Skarlet came to her.
"It's so awesome," Wong says. "It calms you down. It soothes you. It takes your mind off the treatment. It gives you a warm feeling."
Skarlet didn't need an invitation to walk up to another patient, Allen Brown, who also was waiting for a follow-up visit.
Kennedy asked, "Would you like to pet her?"
Without answering, Allen reached out.
"Pretty dog," he says. "I have five dogs at home."
In the infusion room, Skarlet visits with Cortes as well as with John Voss of Madera. Both can't hardly take their eyes off Skarlet.
"She likes me," Cortes says. "Her paws are so big. Look at her ears."
There's a piece of toast on a plate next to Cortes. Skarlet paid attention only to Cortes.
"She's so calm," Cortes says.
Staff workers say they see the therapeutic value of Skarlet.
"She calms them," says Lynn Boyd, a registered nurse in the infusion room. "It takes their focus off why they're here -- and the fear. Having her here diverts their attention to something else. She is a wonderful dog."
Kennedy has Skarlet perform certain tricks to patients and staff members. When Kennedy says, "Bye, bye, cancer," Skarlet raised a paw in agreement.
She also traded high-fives with Julie Scott, an dosimetrist.
Scott says she looks forward to Skarlet's visits because they have a calming effect on her: "She is a good break for us, from all the intensity in here."
Kennedy feels good about Skarlet bringing relief and joy to both patients and staff.
"I've had two wonderful dogs who can do this," she says of Sparkle and Skarlet. "It's an emotional thing for me. It's my missionary work that I get to do with my dog. I'm so blessed."
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