Pet Therapy: VNA canine volunteer brightens days for many

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Photo by Vic Neumann

Vikahn and Yulee.

Yulee visits a patient at CCMC.

Visitors are always a bright spot when you are not feeling well. Perhaps even more special is a visit from a very large soft dog who patiently allows you to pet his thick fur and look into his understanding eyes.

Yulee is a Leonberger, a giant breed, who works as a hospice and home/facility bound companion volunteering along with his owner Vic Neumann at the Farmington Valley Visiting Nurse Association. Yulee follows in the tradition of his dad, Vikahn, who recently passed away. Vikahn provided comfort to the families in Newtown following their school tragedy; now Yulee is walking in his father’s pawprints by providing comfort to patients at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center (CCMC), nursing facilities, in hospice settings and schools, and in private homes. All dogs who visit patients need to be certified pet therapy dogs; Yulee is certified through Therapy Dogs International.

Dogs offer the comforting power of physical contact, says VNA Volunteer Vic Neumann.  “The warmth of touch improves moods and reduces anxiety,” he explains. Therapy dogs have stable temperaments and friendly, easy-going personalities. “Your therapy dog has to be up to lots of hugs,” notes Vic. Unconditional love is important for patients’ well-being and furry visitors act as a non-judgmental listeners and quiet friends. 

Recently Yulee visited the home of a 91-year-old who, following a prolonged illness, had been noncommunicative, sleeping through most days, and not eating well. When Yulee arrived, the patient smiled for the first time in weeks as she watched Yulee’s life story on a video. The patient began talking to Vic while petting Yulee; the change in her overall demeanor was amazing. In the days to follow the woman experienced a renewed appetite, increased alertness, and a renewed interest in events, hobbies, and animal stories.  Yulee’s visit has become the highlight of her week.  

The use of pets in medical settings dates back more than 150 years. Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing in the 19th century, recognized that animals provided emotional support. Studies reveal that contact with dogs and cats reduces blood pressure and anxiety through the release of the so-called “feel good” hormones, including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. Meeting with a pet-therapy dog provides a long list of mental health benefits, including reduced feelings of isolation, alienation, anxiety, and depression.  Such visits can break up what may be a dull daily routine, stimulating the mind in dramatic ways. While some of Yulee’s friends need their spirits lifted through conversation and laughter, others simply soak in the quiet comfort this dog gives in giant measure. 

Leonbergers, such as Yulee, are particularly well-suited as therapy dogs. They weigh up to 170 pounds and can be over 30” tall. A lush-coated giant breed of German origin, they exude a gentle demeanor and pervasive serenity well suited to providing companionship in many situations. They bask in companionship with people, sitting or standing patiently for longer times than most dogs would. Yulee is so tall that patients can pet him right at their bed or chairside; his gentle nature encourages physical interaction.  

Often, the dog’s presence alone provides positive effects. However, patients, caregivers, and family members can interact with the pet therapy animal as they would with most any pet by tossing a ball or toy for the animal to fetch, silently enjoying the dog’s presence, talking to, petting, hugging, holding, or cuddling with the animal or giving a treat, and enjoying the dog’s playful response to commands such as sitting, rolling over, or shaking hands.

Encounters with these special dogs encourage conversation and emotional connection between patients and their families. Whether a therapy dog visit aids in reminiscing, eases loneliness, or calms anxiety, or simply provides enjoyment, the benefits of visits with hospice patients and their families are priceless.   

“Yulee has a life-altering effect on so many people. It’s his calling, and mine as well, to be a volunteer with the Farmington Valley VNA ,” asserts Vic Newman proudly.

To contact the Farmington Valley VNA regarding any of our services, please call 860-651-3539 or visit our website at