Tails wag in anticipation

Garnet and Red Waggin are doggone sad that their visits to patients recovering at Mission Hospital Laguna Beach from addictions were curtailed.

The dogs were regular visitors to the Pacific Coast Recovery Center on the fourth floor before Mission Hospital took over South Coast Medical Center. The dogs’ visits to the South Laguna facility were stopped in May, by order of Mission officials.

“We didn’t have the heart to tell Garnet or Waggin that they had been banned,” said dog owner and Police Department volunteer Nanci Nielsen, whose two English yellow Labradors were enthusiastic visitors to the hospital for about a year.

Helen Simpson, director of the hospital’s Auxiliary Services, which included the Pet Therapy Program, referred all questions about the history or the future of the dog visits to Mission spokesman Kelsey Martinez, who said the prognosis is good.


Mission Hospital has a pet therapy program that is expected to be extended to the Laguna Beach campus this fall.

“Previous participants [at South Coast] will be invited to participate and a few have already been in contact,” Martinez said.

Certainly that is what the personnel in the recovery unit are hoping.

“The dogs are part of our program,” said one medical professional, who preferred not to give her name. “We can’t wait to resume the visits, if Mission Hospital approves them.”


She said that dog visits are just one of the programs — acupuncture is another she named — put on hold during the transition from South Coast Medical Center to Mission, which require new contracts and rules that must be approved.

Other services suspended after the Mission takeover of South Coast Medical Center include the Cardiac Rahab unit and mammography. Patients are advised to make the trek to the Mission Viejo campus, which has annoyed vocal locals.

“We were told that our dog program has to be approved by the Mission board,” Nielsen said. “The board only meets quarterly and the dogs weren’t on the July agenda — so we have to wait until the November meeting.”

Garnet and Waggin used to visit the hospital as often as four times a week, with either Nielsen or her husband, Jerry.

The dogs were so highly regarded by patients recovering from addiction that they were regularly invited to attend program-completion ceremonies, she said.

“Sometimes they filled in as family members if they had really bonded,” Jerry Nielsen said.

Garnet and Waggin are big dogs, better suited for the hospital’s fourth floor where the patients are ambulatory. Small dog owners visited the fifth floor and there had been talk of expanding the program to the third floor, Nancy Nielsen said.

All of the visiting dogs were Delta Society certified. The Delta Society is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that offers training that hones the skills needed for safe visits with animals to hospitals, nursing homes and classrooms.


The animals and their handlers must be screened and their skills and aptitude are evaluated.

There are three classifications: fail, predictable (behavior) and complex, the highest rating, Jerry Nielsen said.

“The dogs and the handlers are tested at the same time,” he said. “The dogs did everything asked of them. A couple of times the leash got taut and we [the Nielsen’s] got marked down. But we all passed and the dogs are both certified complex.”

Garnet and Waggin were also tested and approved for hospice visits.

When visiting patients, Delta dogs wear green vests that identify them.

“When we came to the hospital for a photograph to be taken for this story, the dogs had on their vests and they just couldn’t understand why they weren’t going inside to visit,” Nielsen said.