New guidelines lead to wounded relationship between Heeling Friends, UCHealth

Volunteer handlers and their pet therapy partners with nonprofit Heeling Friends based in Steamboat Springs pose for a group photo following the Fourth of July parade in 2014.
Heeling Friends/Courtesy photo

An almost quarter-century relationship of soothing assistance provided for free to the hospital community in Steamboat Springs is on the rocks due, in part, to the color purple.

Heeling Friends, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization in Steamboat Springs that was founded in 1999, and UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center have severed their official group-to-group relationship after disagreements that stem, partially, from what the volunteer human and dog partners wear when visiting staff, family members and patients.

The certified handler and dog teams from the animal-assisted therapy program that serves organizations from schools to nursing homes to libraries wear signature purple golf-style shirts for the humans and purple collars and leashes for the certified therapy pets. Heeling Friends board members say the purple color tells the well-trained dogs, “It’s time to go to work.”

“Any teams that visit now are prohibited from representing Heeling Friends in any manner, including our traditional purple shirts for our handlers and the purple leashes and collars for our animals,” said Marilyn Scalo, Heeling Friends board president.

YVMC has welcomed pet therapy teams into its facilities since 1999, and the vast majority of those volunteers have been associated with the nonprofit Heeling Friends.

Heeling Friends board members say they were surprised by UCHealth’s decision to prohibit the nonprofit’s volunteers to sport their signature purple and by the hospital staff removing an information board at YVMC showing some of the therapy dogs. All Heeling Friends volunteers were sent an email from YVMC on May 12 regarding significant changes to the UCHealth pet therapy program that would go into effect May 24.

“There are a number of regulatory requirements and standards that teams must follow across all of our facilities to comply with health care policies and procedures,” Samantha McPhall of YVMC volunteer services noted in the email. “These may differ from the standards set by other pet therapy organizations within our community. It is important to note that when volunteering at YVMC, wearing clothing representing a different pet therapy organization is not allowed.”

For the past several weeks, the nonprofit members and hospital staff have met and exchanged emails trying to solve the conflict.

Heeling Friends board president and handler Marilyn Scalo and her dog Camo are one of the regular pet therapy assistance teams that help in the community.
Heeling Friends/Courtesy photo

YVMC President Soniya Fidler noted in an email to Heeling Friends on May 18, “Our goal is to transition to pet therapy program so that we can create a broader program of other volunteers, in addition to Heeling Friends volunteers, who are also interested in providing their service not through Heeling Friends.”

On May 26, McPhall noted in an email to Heeling Friends, “Although we may be at a crossroads in these conversations, we truly appreciate the contributions Heeling Friends has made over the years to our pet therapy program.”

“We acknowledge that these changes and this information may be difficult to understand and accept,” McPhall noted. “Each Heeling Friends team will need to make their own choice as whether or not to participate in YVMC’s pet therapy program and comply with its required policies.”

Scalo said that in the 25 years of service to the hospital, “there has never been one complaint or documented incident with any of our teams.”

“Heeling Friends registered teams has always followed YVMC and now UCHealth guidelines for pet therapy visits, and, in fact, helped to establish those guidelines,” Scalo said. “Those teams that visit at the hospital have always been approved volunteers and have always worn their UCHealth YVMC badges. Additionally, they wear their team badges from the organization who registered them.”

Routt County resident Bob Newton, pictured in August 2022, has been a regular volunteer with nonprofit Heeling Friends with two of his dogs, including Willie, who has his own medical center ID badge too.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

UCHealth Communications Strategist Lindsey Reznicek said that to ensure all volunteers are following regulatory requirements and standards, “YVMC shared guidelines with our pet therapy program volunteers earlier this year that may impact some individuals; others are already following these guidelines.”

“These pet therapy guidelines will help ensure the safety of our patients, staff and volunteers while providing clear identification and associations with YVMC and UCHealth,” Reznicek said.

Heeling Friends was created by a retired emergency room nurse from YVMC, and the program started visits with three teams that grew to 460 teams visiting local medical center, rehabilitation and retirement facilities through the years.

Scalo said as the only registered therapy dog program in Routt County, Heeling Friends will continue to support the community through its services at places such as libraries, schools, Colorado Mountain College, Yampa Valley Regional Airport and Routt County emergency call center.

Heeling Friends board member Ken Rogers, a volunteer since 2003, said a few pet therapy partnerships from Heeling Friends have chosen to continue visits at the hospital under UCHealth’s stipulations without using the signature purple gear.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.