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Facility Dog Ralph Improves the Lives of Warriors and Healthcare Heroes at the VA

 In Facility Dogs, PPH BLog, Training, Volunteers

A facility dog’s role is to boost morale, build a welcoming atmosphere and promote healing for Warriors in a clinical setting. In his first year at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Clinic in San Jose, California, Ralph’s impact went far beyond what we could ever have imagined.

In addition to helping Veterans, it became clear that Ralph’s purpose would be to provide support to healthcare heroes who, like Paws for Purple Hearts, are dedicated to improving the lives of America’s Warriors despite the pandemic.

Meet Ralph

PPH Ralph as a puppy
PPH Ralph as a puppy
PPH Ralph at graduation
PPH Ralph at graduation

Ralph is a four-year-old Labrador Retriever who graduated from Paws for Purple Hearts as a facility dog in January of 2020. His sweet, calm and loving personality made him the perfect fit for a life serving Veterans alongside his handler, Lori.

PPH Ralph with his handlers at graduation
PPH Ralph with his handlers at graduation

Lori is a Supervisory Social Worker at the VA, where she provides clinical supervision for the dedicated staff members who care for VA patients in San Jose. Ralph also gets to work with his secondary handlers, Rhonda and Chris, to provide therapy and counseling services for Veterans.

A few short months into their partnership, the world was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. This changed many things, including how the duo would serve their beloved Veterans. As contact with Veterans became increasingly limited, and the toll of the pandemic began to weigh on the healthcare providers, Lori and Ralph began spending more and more time interacting with staff.

Serving Healthcare Heroes

From joining social workers for their morning huddles to checking in with nurses during their breaks, Ralph provided a breath of fresh air for frontline healthcare heroes at the San Jose VA.

“I need some ‘Ralph time’” became a popular phrase among the social workers, nurses, staff and Veterans. “From the minute I walk into the clinic, people are asking to meet with him,” says Lori. “He has regulars, let’s just say.”

His loving nature and friendly face proved to be just what the staff needed while navigating the “new normal” brought on the pandemic.

Ralph visits with VA staff
Ralph visits with VA staff
Ralph and Lori Now
Ralph and Lori Now

Ralph’s role is to be wherever Lori is as she serves both Veterans and staff members. When new social workers go through training, he is there to provide them with love and attention. To provide stress relief to her staff, Lori has even begun teaching others how she utilizes Ralph in a clinical setting, just like the Paws for Purple Hearts team taught her.

“I work with a very high-risk population in mental health, and it is not light work,” says Sarah Plepp, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the San Jose VA Clinic. “There are days that it is hard! Sitting on the floor and having Ralphie come sit in my lap makes me feel like I can ‘let go’ of what I am carrying.”  Sarah is just one of the many healthcare workers whose spirits have been lifted thanks to Ralph.

Mike Clayton, another staff member at the VA, credits Ralph for helping him overcome his fear of dogs. “When I first found out about Ralphie, I tried to avoid him,” Mike said. “However, after seeing him interact with staff and encouragement from Lori and Chris, I tried to interact with Ralphie. I can honestly say I’m a little less afraid of dogs now, and that says a lot. Thank you, Ralphie, Lori and Chris for helping me to decrease my fears.”

Working with Warriors

Even though Ralph has spent most of his time as a facility dog working with nurses and social workers, he still had a tremendous impact on Warriors in the short time before the pandemic.

Lori recalls one instance where a Veteran insisted that dogs didn’t like him. After an hour therapy session where Ralph provided his comforting presence, the Warrior changed his mind and was even more willing to speak up. “Little things like that turn into big things,” says Lori.

Ralph has been an invaluable ‘tool’ for the team when to working with Veterans who have issues building trust. Lori says that he lights up the room and helps give her more time with Veterans, which is exactly what she hopes for.

Thank You, Healthcare Heroes and Warriors

Ralph gets a belly rub from a VA nurse
Ralph gets a belly rub from a VA nurse

It’s not every day that our facility dog graduates spend time improving the lives of both Warriors and healthcare workers, but then again, it’s not every day that the world is hit with a global pandemic.

Front line health care providers have sacrificed so much for us this year, and Veterans have put their lives on the line to protect our freedom, so it’s is wonderful that Ralph has been able to boost the spirits of both groups of heroes during this challenging time.

From all of us at Paws for Purple Hearts, thank you to both of these heroes for your service!

The Future for our Facility Dogs

It costs around $35,000 to prepare and train a PPH assistance dog like Ralph for placement. If you’d like to support our mission to improve the lives of our nation’s Warriors, and often the healthcare workers who care for these Veterans, please consider making a donation online or visiting our Amazon Wish List to purchase supplies for our training centers.

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