Bringing smiles wherever he goes By Rachel Kelly | Photo Courtesy of The Gabriel Institute
“We do it for the smiles,” says Stan Stearns, founder of the Gabriel Institute. His dog, Teddy (Bear), is well known around town for his sweet, slobbery smile and big fluffy St. Bernard demeanor. Teddy and Stan visit hospital and care facilities providing therapy for those who are experiencing illness. Teddy and his team of volunteer dogs (and owners) are dogs trained by the Gabriel Institute to provide comfort in times when it is sorely needed. True treatment isn’t just about medical intervention; it’s about the mental state of those experiencing treatment. Laughter and comfort lifts the spirit along with the body, and aids in the healing process. Teddy and his team are here to bring that joy and comfort, as only man’s best friends can.
Stan doesn’t just offer his time and resources to providing therapy for patients. His company, VICI Valco Instruments, was vital in providing new innovative tools for cancer treatment. Founding the Gabriel Institute was a natural evolution for Stan, providing the other side of healing. Stan founded the institute to provide emotional support for cancer patients after he had spent so many years offering physical support. Illness, sickness and treatment can be a trial that is traumatic for the body and the emotions.
Getting well can be a full-time job on its own, with periods of rest and recuperation being as important as treatment. The therapy that the Gabriel Institute provides brings rest and recuperation in the hospital, where patients need it most. Therapy dogs boost moods and bolster the immune system. A hospital's work is to provide physical care, but in doing so they often run into social, economic and emotional barriers to health.
Therapy such as what the Gabriel Institute provides, through Teddy and his team, is the other often disregarded side of health. It is vitally important, not just because there can be so little of it, but because the body isn’t just a set of limbs. It is heart, soul and mind. Sometimes those other parts need the kind of happiness and comfort that Teddy brings in order to heal physically.
The Gabriel Institute fulfills three assets of healing: comfort, care and cure. To bring comfort they provide training and certification for canine companions, so that they can provide comfort to the community. They also care for the dogs they train, and in turn work with them to provide a deep level of care to the people they serve. Lastly, the institute, at its core, was founded to do what it can to seek out a cure for cancer. The therapy they provide goes hand in hand with the treatment provided by hospitals.
Prior to COVID, Teddy and his team of specially trained joy-bringers regularly visited the Texas Children's Hospital and the more local Mary Bridge. The joy that a child experiences through positive experience can help distract them from their distress and stay positive throughout the healing process. Teddy and his team provide an environment for wellness, so that children and families can receive the psycho-social support they need. Teddy, specifically, just finished his 600th visit, each visit generally lasting an hour.
The therapy model of the Gabriel Institute focuses on making someone’s day a little brighter, one visit at a time. Volunteers with their privately owned dogs having been trained and approved by the institute, visit nursing homes, care facilities, and hospitals. While the dogs used in therapy have received the stamp of the institute, they are not raised as service animals from puppyhood up. At the end of the day, they go home to be with their families. They are happy dogs, with the majority of their time dedicated to just being the wonderful animals that they are. Which makes this whole model just that more beautiful.
More recently, since the pandemic, hospitals and other care facilities have been on high alert. They don’t often allow visitors, not even canine ones. Teddy and Stan miss their vital visits to patients. However, this doesn’t mean that Teddy has had nothing to do. He is still hard at work in the community! These days he can be seen at the YMCA in Gig Harbor most afternoons, bringing joy to children and families. Teddy and his team are also still visiting wherever the doors are open, such as at Cottesmore, which offers assisted and independent living, skilled nursing, and short- to long-term rehabilitative care.
The daily antics and slobbers of Teddy and his team can be seen on the Facebook page Toby the Therapy Dog, as well as online at GabrielInstitute.org. Until they get back to their regular hospital and nursing home visits, seeing Teddy more around town has none of us complaining!