Bella and Gracie, looking very Jackie O in their pink Chanel jackets, matching pillbox hats, and pearls, say “thank you” to Backus Hospital’s healthcare heroes on a card that their “mom” Judith Pepin hands out to nurses as she makes the rounds at the hospital.

Bella, 15, and Gracie, 3, are pugs who volunteer as therapy dogs at Backus and area nursing homes. Their “mom,” Judith Pepin, has been volunteering with her pets for more than 13 years.

The girls aren’t allowed to wear their outfits when they visit patients at Backus, although they can don their pearls. “A girl has to have some bling,” Judy says. And while the pandemic hit pause on most volunteering and therapy pet visits, everyone is back in full swing now.

Pepin made the cards for nurses and others working in the hospital when COVID had limited regular access to the hospital. She said both she and the dogs are excited to be back visiting patients, following all COVID protocols.

She brings just one dog at a time for visits.

“Sometimes it’s hard for Bella at Backus because she’s an old dog and it’s a lot of walking, but she was so excited last week, she was pulling me down the hall!” Pepin said.

Bella, shown above with Pepin, left, and Doreen Morrison, PCT, in 2018, is a certified therapy dog with Pet Partners, a national organization. Gracie is certified with Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

“I wanted to do some kind of volunteer work,” Pepin said when asked how this got started. “I was living in Cincinnati at the time, and I loved the idea of pet therapy. So I needed a dog. I decided on a pug because I love how they look, they are pretty paid back, and they love people.”

Obedience training was followed by therapy dog training, and then certification. A volunteer career was born.

Mary Brown, director of Volunteer and Guest Services at Backus, said it is a wonderful feeling to welcome back all the volunteers, including the therapy animals. Also on the volunteer roster are bichon mix Mugsly (Lynn Snyder) and Jake the Irish wolfhound (Karen Eberl). All the dogs volunteered during pediatric COVID vaccine clinics. Staff and patients are so appreciative of the pet visits.

“Just today I got an email from respiratory therapy asking if there was going to be a pet visit, and it just so happened Bella was coming today, so we popped up there,” Brown said.

Pepin is also happy to be back. “I enjoy it so much. It’s such a heartwarming feeling, and the people we visit are so appreciative. Many of them are missing their own pets. Some are just sad because they aren’t feeling well. The dogs bring a smile to everyone’s face.” Pepin always asks if the patient would like a visit, “and they almost always say yes.”

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