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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Dogs have been used for years to cheer up patients at hospitals and nursing homes, distracting them from their health issues. But can a therapy dog help heart failure patients get stronger? That’s what some South Jersey Healthcare nurses wanted to know.

Gypsy the greyhound is a sleek speed machine. She just doesn’t know it, says her owner, Sami Abate, RN.

“She raced for four and a half years in Florida and Alabama and never won once,” laughed Abate.

Now Gypsy is on a track more her speed. She’s a therapy dog at South Jersey Healthcare Regional Medical Center doing what they call canine-assisted ambulation, or walking with a dog. On this day, she was walking with Lillian Bishop the day after her surgery.

“It gives you more courage, I guess, makes you feel better,” said Bishop.

Walking improves circulation, improves cardiac function, and gets patients out of the hospital faster. Research by South Jersey Healthcare nurses published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing shows walking with a dog, even just once, makes an even bigger difference.

Abate said, “Our research found that a significant number of patients that initially refuse to walk with an aide alone would agree to walk when offered the chance to walk with a therapy dog.”

“I think the most surprising thing was that people did not realize they were walking as far as they were,” said Bruce Boxer, director of nursing quality at South Jersey Healthcare.

In fact, the research found patients walked nearly twice as far without noticing. And the biggest finding? Cardiac patients walking with a dog went home from the hospital sooner than the national average.

Michele Zucconi, clinical director for the cardiac care center, said, “It did actually decrease the length of stay by one day, which was huge for us because of the financial impact.”

Now the nurses are taking calls from other hospitals across the country who want to start their own canine-assisted ambulation programs. Gypsy’s taking it all in stride.

We asked, is there a risk to patients from a dog? Usually not, the nurses told us. In fact, the dog is more likely to catch something in the hospital than infect a human with a canine disease.

Reported by Stephanie Stahl, CBS 3

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