Creature Comfort Pet Therapy dogs bring cancer patients joy during chemo treatment

FLORHAM PARK, New Jersey (WABC) -- Heather O'Rourke, Eyewitness News' morning traffic anchor, is warming hearts around New Jersey with her four-legged sidekick, Rocco.

Heather and her family rescued Rocco in 2011. "We locked eyes and I said - that's a great dog - I'm taking him home," said Heather. After reading the book 'A Dog's Purpose', she turned to Rocco and asked him, "Rocco, what's your purpose?"

Something clicked and Heather knew Rocco would make an incredible therapy dog. She started doing research on pet therapy and came across Creature Comfort Pet Therapy.

"We have 500 volunteers... and half of them have four legs," said Mary Beth Cooney of Creature Comfort Pet Therapy. Creature Comfort Pet Therapy is a non-profit organization devoted to enhancing lives through therapeutic visits with caring volunteers and their pets.

The program has certified more than 400 pet therapy teams, including dogs, cats, rabbits, a goat, guinea pigs, and a mini horse. The volunteer teams provide approximately 300 visits each month to our partner facilities including nursing homes, schools, hospitals, mental health centers, and veterans programs.

"My first visit, it's called your 'Mentor Visit'. We went to an adult care center," said Heather, "It was so much fun. We go in and they had just had lunch. This one man had just had meatloaf - and he let Rocco lick all of the meatloaf off his face."

Interaction with a gentle, friendly animal has significant benefits for people dealing with trauma. It can aid their physical health, mental health and has shown improvements in occupational therapy.

"If you're having a bad day, just having a big floppy dog show up is wonderful," said Oncology Nurse, Michelle Mackenzie, "You know, it makes everybody happy."

Heather took us with her on a very special trip to the Summit Medical Group Cancer Center in Florham Park, New Jersey. The on-site pet therapy program is part of Summit Medical Group Foundation's cancer compassion initiative to support the courage, confidence and emotional well-being of cancer patients and their families.

Patients spoke to Heather as she brought Rocco around a chemotherapy floor. "It's very calming - it's the high point of my day," said a patient accepting treatment, "They're little therapists is what they are."

"The fact that there are so many people, who give up their time - for no reason other than to give back to other people - to me, it's applaudable behavior," said another patient.

"Seeing that I can bring them some kind of comfort and joy - it just makes me feel good - I get comfort and joy out of it," said Heather.

For more information about Creature Comfort Pet Therapy or how to get involved, visit their website.

For more exciting happenings in and around New York, visit In Our Backyard.

----------
* More New Jersey news
* Send us a news tip
* Download the abc7NY app for breaking news alerts
Copyright © 2019 WABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.