KINGSPORT — No matter what, Dana Outlaw and her therapy dog, Toby, always show up.
Outlaw and her 10-year-old Boston terrier and corgi mix have been loyally serving patients at National HealthCare Corp. (NHC) in Kingsport for the past five years. At the skilled nursing facility, Toby is somewhat of a celebrity.
“Everyone knows Toby,” said Mackenzie Bugbee, the director of recreation and wellness at NHC. “He’s like a celebrity. He’s cooler than I’ll ever be. He’s just the coolest guy.”
Toby makes his rounds through the building each and every Wednesday at 10 a.m. to put smiles on the faces of patients — and for his favorite part of his day, the occasional belly rub.
“He loves nothing more than to cuddle next to them and someone give him a belly rub,” Outlaw said with a laugh. “It brings them happiness, and it brings Toby happiness.”
It’s about more than just affection, though.
A 2019 study from the U.S National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health said animals are able to help people with dementia by providing companionship and support in daily activities, which can lead to improvements in physical and mental health.
For those at NHC, Bugbee said, Toby has also served as a way to simply brighten everyone’s day.
“Just being around an animal can do a lot for an individual’s anxiety, depression,” Bugbee said. “It just takes their minds off of anything they may be going through in regards to whatever their diagnosis is. They light up.
“You’re having a bad day and you see a puppy — it can be a game-changer.”
The facility focuses on the rehabilitation of mostly geriatric patients recovering from surgeries, injuries or other health problems. But the operation, like many across the country, saw a shift in protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. That certainly made it more difficult for Outlaw and Toby to make it to NHC, but they made it work.
While COVID-19 restrictions were in effect, Outlaw and Toby would visit with patients through their windows. Outlaw would come to the window with Toby, who was doing tricks for the patients. Meanwhile, Outlaw and the resident would chat on the phone.
“That made the biggest difference,” Outlaw said, “because then you were still able to connect. … A few of the patients are long-term. It’s just really important to keep contact and to let them know they’re still remembered, cared about and loved.
Even through glass, those visits remained personal and genuine. That, Bugbee said, makes Toby and Outlaw a special duo.
“It’s really about that compassionate visit,” Bugbee said. “(The patients) see that they’re there for them. It’s not like a quick thing and then they’re on to the next room. It’s very sincere, which really jumped out to me. She really takes the time with each patient to make sure they feel like they’ve seen Toby.”
For Outlaw, her version of a belly rub during these visits is hearing stories from the various people they visit.
“The people I meet, they tell me their faith stories,” Outlaw said. “It’s very inspirational.”
The center recently saw its restrictions lifted, which meant it was time to throw a “thank you” party for Outlaw and Toby welcoming them back into the building. And their return, Bugbee said, means brighter days — even for Bugbee herself.
“When I got here, I met Dana and Toby and my day was made,” Bugbee said. “The moment I really got in to see each visit, I thought ‘These two just brightened my day without even trying.’ They just made my patients smile, reminisce, laugh, talk about their pets at home or their childhood animals. They’re not worried about anxiety, pain or depression.
“That point in time is just a blissful feeling of just being able to enjoy the interaction with Toby and Dana. It’s hard to put into words. It just works.”
Bugbee said therapy animals also help dementia patients remember pets they might have had.
“There are therapeutic aspects of an animal being around, petting them, looking into their eyes and seeing an old animal you might have had growing up,” Bugbee said, “especially for some of the dementia patients. Remembering their animal is something massive. That’s so exciting because they might not have remembered that they had a pet like 10 minutes ago.”
For Outlaw, sharing Toby’s loving, laid-back temperament isn’t just a gift for the patients. It’s also a blessing to her each day she arrives at NHC.
“Animals just remind us of unconditional love” Outlaw said. “I like bringing that to people and reminding them of unconditional love. I get back just as much as we give.”