AUSTIN (KXAN) — Visits from therapy dogs are moving online as hospitals and other healthcare facilities restrict the number and types of visitors to slow the spread of the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

Divine Canines, a Central Texas therapy dog organization, has more than 150 certified volunteers who take their dogs to people in need of a visit. The group’s executive director, Max Woodfin, has so far heard of a few dozen who’ve tried out virtual visits thus far in the pandemic.

“These people are just being amazingly creative in figuring out ways to get their dogs virtually in front of our clients,” he said.

Cynthia Martinez is one of the volunteers experimenting with virtual visits. She and her dog, Bailey the Therapy Hound, recently visited two sisters whose mom works in a local hospital. “It was nice to hear kids’ laughter,” Martinez told KXAN. “It was nice to give a healthcare worker a little bit of a break.”

bailey therapy hound
Bailey the Therapy Hound on her first virtual visit to two sisters whose mom works in healthcare. (Image Courtesy: Cynthia Martinez)

‘A whole new layer of stress’

Nina and Rita Lyon, 7-year-old twins, were on the other end of that first virtual visit from Bailey. Martinez read a story over the video-conference platform Zoom and allowed the girls to interact with the dog.

It “definitely picked up the girls’ spirits,” their dad, Alex Lyon, said. “Reconnecting, being able to talk to someone and seeing even a dog.”

Nina and Rita Lyon, both 7, get a virtual visit from Bailey the Therapy Hound. (Photo Courtesy: Alex Lyon)

It’s been a difficult time for the family. Now in their third week out of school, they’re “trying to stay on somewhat of a schedule,” Lyon explained. “Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes we’re not.”

The girls’ mom works in the NICU at a local hospital. She’s not in direct contact with patients who are battling COVID-19, but “she’s going there every day,” Lyon said. “It does add a whole new layer of stress, and especially when you see everything about how you know they’re already running out of masks.”

The Lyon family already knew Bailey through her work in the hospital, which made the virtual visit the perfect testing opportunity for Martinez to figure out whether and how it would work.

She now plans to offer the services at least through April.

“People are even lonelier now than they were two weeks ago.” Martinez said, “and there’s a much bigger need among the populations that we typically meet with.”

She hopes the visits will offer people a little positivity and inspiration until she’s allowed to start visiting clients in person again.

A new tool

While a physical visit is still preferable in Woodfin’s mind, the virtual visits his volunteers are pioneering are a welcome shift in a time of uncertainty. “We are reinventing what we’re doing,” he said.

And the methods Divine Canines is developing now will be a useful tool in the future. In the past, some volunteers have recorded videos to send to patients with compromised immune systems or advanced conditions that don’t allow close contact, but they’ve never used a live video conference before.

Moving forward after the pandemic subsides, he said, it’s “definitely going to be a tool we will use” to bring therapy dogs to patients who can’t see them in person.

Anyone interested in setting up a virtual therapy dog appointment can visit this site and request one.