UNC Health Talk

The Four-Legged Volunteer

When Sadie visits UNC Medical Center, it can take her a while to get from point A to point B. There is just something about Sadie that makes people want to stop and say hello.

It may be her big bright eyes that take the time to look at everyone she passes. It may be her wide open smile. It may be the way her tail wags when someone gives her a scratch on the head.

Sadie is just one of the therapy dogs that makes the rounds at the Medical Center as part of the Tar Heal Paws program. There are more than 30 Tar Heal Paws teams—consisting of a dog and a handler—that visit dozens of units in Chapel Hill, as well as at the UNC Hospitals Hillsborough campus, Wakebrook in Raleigh, the Center for Rehabilitative Care and other facilities.

Man’s Best Friend

Jodie Skoff, the volunteer coordinator who runs the program, says that for some patients, getting a chance to spend a few minutes petting a dog can mean an awful lot. “Our furry volunteers can relieve the stress of hospitalization and bring joy to patients, visitors and staff.”

As part of a new program, patients and visitors may also receive something else. Fourteen of the program’s furry volunteers were selected to be featured on trading cards that their handlers can leave behind as a reminder of the new friend that came to visit.

Jamie Lynn Russell, Sadie’s owner, knows how important it is to give patients the opportunity to think about something other than their hospitalization. When she is not accompanying Sadie around the hospital, Jamie Lynn is a nurse. Today she works on the ISCU but when she first encountered the therapy dogs from Tar Heal Paws, she was working on 6 Neurosciences.


Various volunteer dogs of different breeds.
Many volunteer breeds for every need!


“I saw how much it meant to patients and their families,” she recalls. “I loved it when to dogs came to visit. I didn’t have a dog then, but I wanted to get one and knew that when I did it would be a therapy dog.”

“I saw how much it meant to patients and their families,” Russell recalls. “I loved it when to dogs came to visit. I didn’t have a dog then, but I wanted to get one and knew that when I did it would be a therapy dog.”

So Jamie Lynn adopted Sadie, a golden retriever/poodle mix called a ‘goldendoodle,’ which has the advantage of being hypoallergenic. “I’m not allergic, but I thought it would be handy in a therapy dog,” says Jamie Lynn.

To become a part of the Tar Heal Paws program, canine volunteers must demonstrate certain behaviors to show that they have the right temperament and training to be allowed on the units. It’s not every dog that can earn their very own UNC Hospitals ID badge.

After almost a year of off-and-on obedience training, Sadie was able to pass her test. She started doing shifts in January of this year and visits the hospital twice a month.

There are still a few restrictions about where Sadie can go and who she can interact with—she can’t visit with a patient on any kind of precaution—but for most patients, Sadie can get as close as they are comfortable with.

“She likes to get on people’s beds,” says Jamie Lynn. “Anytime a patient wants her on the bed, we’ll put a sheet down and she’ll snuggle with them.”

Sadie also has an impact on patients and visitors too.

“She can really brighten someone’s day and make them smile.”

“She can really brighten someone’s day and make them smile,” says Jamie Lynn. “Sometimes we’ll visit with patients that are comatose or unresponsive; they can’t really interact with her but it will mean a lot to the family. They’ll be excited to meet her and a lot of times they will tell me that they have a dog at home that they miss.”

For Jamie Lynn, getting to share Sadie with patients and families can be a welcome change from her day-to-day nursing duties.

“Taking Sadie around gives me a different perspective on the hospital then I get when I’m wearing scrubs. When you’re a nurse, sometimes you have to do things to patients that don’t feel very good or make them uncomfortable, even if it’s for their own good. But when I bring Sadie to visit, it’s only happiness. Patients get excited and families get excited. That’s the best part for me.”

Skoff says that experiences like these are part of what make the Tar Heal Paws program such a valuable part of the volunteer program.

“Visits from our furry volunteers allow patients to feel like a little piece of home is with them again,” she says. “They feel the unconditional love that an animal can bring and it allows them to have a few stress-free moments when they need them most. Tar Heal Paws volunteers can bring an emotional release and a sense of relief to patients and their families, and I think that’s invaluable.”

Learn more about Tar Heal Paws here, including information on joining the program.