Research suggests that the average dog has the ability to understand more than 150 words.
Bob Hayes estimates that Sugar, his golden retriever, knows at least 75.
On Wednesday mornings, she shows how much a certain combination of them means to her when he asks, “Sugar, are you ready to go to work?”
The question puts her in therapy dog mode, Hayes said, “and she is thrilled. She is up and ready to go.”
The finishing touches — teal-colored vests for man and his best friend — assure Sugar it’s time to get in the car and head over to the Mayo Clinic hospital about a mile away.
Once they enter the lobby, Sugar becomes the object of great affection for patients and visitors. She gently accepts their affection and gives it right back, Hayes said.
The result: People with a lot on their minds tend to smile and relax as Sugar’s calming presence lifts their spirits.
Hayes and his dog have been participating in the Caring Canines program at Mayo for two years. The program, which has been at Mayo for five years, is based on studies showing the positive effects of tail-wagging “meet-and-greets” in a clinical environment.
The interactions can lower blood pressure and anxiety, brighten moods and “give people something else to think about,” said Joan Streightiff, who, as service chair, helps oversee volunteer operations for Caring Canines at Mayo on a day-to-day basis. (Sugar is one of 27 dogs in the program. The smallest participant is a Chihuahua, the largest a standard poodle.)
A few months ago, Hayes began bringing Sugar to the Community Hospice McGraw Center for Caring, which is located on the Mayo Campus. The Pet Therapy Volunteer Program, which serves Community Hospice locations in five Northeast Florida counties, has the same goals as Caring Canines.
Hayes is gratified to see similar reactions from patients and their families when Sugar arrives, bringing 94 pounds of comfort into a room.
“I love what I’m doing,” he said.
The docile ‘therapist’
Hayes, 80, retired in 2000 after a successful business career and started looking for ways to “give back to the community.”
After serving for 10 years on the board at Mission House, a homeless shelter in Jacksonville Beach, Hayes was looking for another avenue for community involvement.
Some neighbors told him about Caring Canines at Mayo. Hayes believed that his golden retriever’s even-tempered disposition made her a good candidate for the program.
“Historically goldens are very docile, but they are also very social animals,” Hayes said.
In late 2014, he and Sugar completed an eight-week training program conducted by Pet Partners, a national nonprofit whose mission includes animal-assisted therapy.
Sugar was not quite 4 when Hayes began taking her to the Mayo Clinic hospital in February 2015.
Their visits start in the lobby — where Sugar frequently gets a treat from a Mayo employee — and continue down the hallway to the waiting room of the radiation oncology unit in the adjacent Cannaday Building.
It’s a short distance that could be covered in several minutes by someone walking at a normal pace.
But Sugar’s ability to attract attention routinely means a stroll of half an hour or more to get to the eventual destination. Hayes guides Sugar to anyone who shows an interest. In the course of their Wednesday visit in mid
February, Hayes responded to nearly a dozen requests for some Sugar time.
Some of the interactions were brief, consisting of basic questions like “Is she friendly?” and “Can I pet her?” followed by simple “Thank you” and “That made my day.”
One man, after learning Sugar’s name, told her he wanted to put her in his coffee as he gently patted her head.
But longer exchanges were common too. Hayes has found that patients often respond to therapy dogs by talking about their pets, and sharing cellphone photos of their dogs.
That was the case when he and Sugar entered the radiation oncology waiting room. Two women got out their phones while petting Sugar. “I have a golden, and a chocolate lab,” said one of the women, who spoke lovingly of the breeds before putting her phone down.
Sugar’s tail was still wagging as they exited, but Hayes said she was nearing her limit as a giver and receiver of affection.
Typically “she’s loved out” after an hour, he said, and ready for an afternoon nap.
But Hayes and Sugar had already planned a visit at the McGraw Center that day.
When they arrived at the center, Hayes had replaced his Mayo Caring Canines vest with a Carolina blue sweater vest, and Sugar was sporting a red bandana around her neck.
They made their way down the hall to Gary Wilson’s room, whom they were meeting for the first time. Wilson is from Texas, and Hayes mentioned a family member who lived in the same general area where Wilson was from.
While Sugar rested near Wilson’s feet, Hayes and Wilson talked about the failure of the Dallas Cowboys to make the Super Bowl this year.
Then, with Hayes’ encouragement, Sugar moved close to Wilson for another pat before Hayes and Sugar departed. Hayes told Wilson they looked forward to coming back for another visit soon.
Hayes and Sugar then walked to the center’s patio, where patient Eric Griffin was visiting with family members. They praised Hayes and Sugar for their efforts to bring some cheer to patients and their families.
“It’s amazing,” said Griffin’s daughter Kathleen Beilein of Ann Arbor, Mich. “His face lighted up right away.”
Their work was over for the day, and Hayes began to make their way to the center’s entrance.
Hayes also took Sugar to Community Connections, a transitional housing facility for women and children until the agency’s board decided to close down the building toward the end of last year.
Sugar’s role, Hayes said, was to sit and listen while children read to her.
He likes to joke that “Everybody knows Sugar, nobody knows Bob” at Mayo, even though he’s always wearing his name tag when he’s there.
But Hayes knows something would be awry if the handler was getting as much attention as the pet.
“It it so rewarding to do what I do,” he said. “I feel strongly about giving back to the community. Sugar has brought me into a new perspective of giving.”