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Introducing Phelps Health Pet Pals

Phelps Health therapy dogs
Phelps Health Pet Pals therapy dogs are, from left, Ryder, Jethro, Luke and Sophia.

Published on January 10, 2023

Read Time: Four Minutes

If you haven’t already, you may soon notice new volunteers rounding at Phelps Health. These volunteers, complete with their official badges, are of the four-legged variety.

Crystal Lorah, director of Auxiliary and Volunteer Services at Phelps Health, is pleased to announce the arrival of therapy dogs to the healthcare organization. Crystal attended a conference a few years ago in Kansas City, Missouri, where therapy dogs were a topic, and she was excited to pitch the idea, when the time was right.

“There was great buy-in from senior leadership,” Crystal said. “Everyone has been excited to see this program come to life.”

The Phelps Health Pet Pals program’s main goals are to increase patient satisfaction and improve employee morale. Research has shown that animals can have a calming effect, reduce anxiety, and provide comfort and support at times when it is needed most.

Before entering a patient’s room or employee area, the handler will ask if it’s OK to visit and ensure that no one is allergic to dogs. The handler also will hold onto their dog’s leash at all times.

In November, the dogs made their first appearance at Phelps Health, visiting employees. At the beginning of the year, they added patient rooms to their weekly rounding.

Read on, to meet four new furry volunteers – and their handlers – making a difference at Phelps Health.

Therapy dog Ryder
Ryder, a 3-year-old golden retriever, greets a Phelps Health staff member.

Meet Ryder

Susan Hinkle has been a volunteer with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs for over 20 years now. Ryder, a people-pleasing, 3-year-old golden retriever, is her fifth therapy dog.

In her two decades with the canine program, Susan has witnessed some amazing things.

“I’ve seen [a girl with an immobilizing disability] move her hands to pet one of the therapy dogs, a chocolate Lab,” Susan said. “I’ve also witnessed a nonverbal student reading to a therapy dog in a hallway at a local elementary.”

Susan’s current therapy dog is a graduate of several obedience classes, including Canine Good Citizen, an American Kennel Club program. Prior to volunteering at the hospital, Ryder visited nursing homes, different schools in Rolla, and parole and probation officers.

Ryder and his handler delight in bringing love to people, wherever they may be. Ryder’s hobbies include swimming, playing ball, napping and of course, eating.

“Ryder is extremely food motivated,” Susan said, laughing. “He loves to clean my fridge out but can’t right now. Our vet says he’s supposed to be on a diet.”

In addition to being a dog handler, Susan also is certified to test therapy dogs. She has given her stamp of approval to all of the dogs involved in the new Phelps Health program.

Luke Skybarker, therapy dog
Luke Skybarker is a 3-year-old Labrador retriever, now making the rounds at Phelps Health.

Meet Luke Skybarker

About 8 years ago, Audrey Vail, the wife of Phelps Health Internal Medicine Physician Chad Vail, DO, FACOI, was involved in a car accident that landed her in Acute Rehab at Phelps Health for 8 weeks. Tragically, she lost her 9-month-old German shepherd puppy in the wreck.

Insert Jack, an aptly-named Jack Russell terrier, who came to visit Audrey in rehab as she recovered physically and emotionally. This overwhelmingly positive experience inspired Audrey, who also teaches nursing classes at Phelps Health, to one day have her own therapy dog.

Fast forward to 2023, and Audrey and Luke Skybarker are now making the rounds at Phelps Health, visiting patients and employees. Luke is a 3-year-old white Labrador retriever, who – after completing extensive training – was tested and approved by Susan for work as a therapy dog. In fact, Susan handpicked Luke for Audrey.

Prior to his volunteer work at Phelps Health, Luke visited students at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. He is proud to show off his bag of tricks, including high-fives, and rolling over and playing dead when his handler says, “Pew, pew!” When he’s not socializing, Luke’s favorite pastime is taking naps – and playing Frisbee for a short time, but mostly naps. He also enjoys playing with his little sister and fellow white Lab, Rey Skybarker.

“Luke’s favorite meal is his next one,” Audrey said. “He loves everything except for vegetables, which are a hard pass.”

Therapy dog Sophia
“Her favorite thing is people. She honestly loves people,” Joan Murray said of her therapy dog, Sophia.

Meet Sophia

Joan Murray adopted her dog, Sophia, who is part black Lab and part Rottweiler, about 4 years ago. Sophia, who is now 8 years old, was certified as a therapy dog in 2019.

Joan is retired from the military and now teaches at Rolla Middle School. She heard about the Pet Pals program through Susan.

Sophia is not Joan’s first therapy dog. She had a dog named Harley, who completed over 200 visits before he passed away.

“If there was ever a dog meant to be a therapy dog, it was Sophia,” Joan said.

Sophia has received the Therapy Dog Excellence Award for completing 200 safe visits. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Joan and Sophia would visit the Missouri Veterans Home in St. James as well as local hospice care and assisted living facilities.

To become a certified therapy dog, Joan and Sophia had to complete 21 hours of training at the K-9 Academy in Rolla. Sophia also graduated from obedience classes, including the Canine Good Citizen class.

“Her favorite thing is people. She honestly loves people,” Joan said of Sophia. Sophia also knows how to shake paws and spreads a lot of smiles.

Therapy dog Jethro
Phelps Health therapy dogs, like Jethro, underwent rigorous training in order to volunteer in the healthcare organization.

Meet Jethro

Leroy Jethro Gibbs, named after the “NCIS” character, is a seasoned therapy dog with 5 years of experience under his collar. Prior to beginning his duties at Phelps Health, the 8-year-old black Labrador retriever mix has visited with elementary school children, residents at assisted living and memory care facilities, and residents at the Gingerbread House in Rolla.

His owner, Mary Jane Aufdengarten, met Jethro as a rescue dog when he was just 6 months old.

“Susan asked me if I could board him for a while,” Mary Jane said. “As soon as he jumped in my lap, however, I knew we were in trouble.”

The pair has been together ever since. Susan saw potential for Jethro to be a therapy dog, and he went on to complete Canine Good Citizen training at Canine Connections.

Simply put, Jethro “loves to be loved,” said Mary Jane, who sees the Pet Pals program as a great opportunity for Phelps Health. “Stress levels run high in healthcare, and therapy dogs provide a welcome reprieve.”

Making a Positive Difference

Want to learn more about the Pet Pals program? Questions can be directed to Crystal Lorah at or (573) 458-7947.

Found in: Auxiliary Auxiliary and Volunteer Services Community Health Patients Volunteering Wellness