Original story published by The Health Journal on July 1, 2015
Read the full story here.

One of the most noticeable staff members at Riverside Rehabilitation Institute isn’t a nurse, therapist or even a doctor. She doesn’t even speak English. Instead, she walks on four legs, wags her tail and has a fondness for Milk-Bones.

Meet Ekko, the 6-year-old service dog who has been bringing joy to countless patients at the Newport News, Virginia, rehab center for the past four years. For some, the medicine Ekko doles out is priceless.

“She just has a way of making you feel better,” says Jerry Williams, a 79-year-old Carrollton, Virginia, man who spent several weeks at the center in May after having a stroke. “She has a tendency to make you happy, to brighten your day.”

Ekko came to the Riverside facility four years ago by way of Saint Francis Service Dogs, a Roanoke-based organization that places dogs with people who are living with disabilities, including multiple sclerosis, paralysis, stroke, arthritis and brain injuries.

Initially trained as a service dog, Ekko switched gears after a few years and received further training as a facility dog. Unlike service dogs, which are placed with a specific person needing assistance, facility dogs are partnered with a professional working in a health care, courtroom or educational setting.

In a school setting, a facility dog can help in special education classes with social interaction. In a courtroom, a dog can be a comfort to sexually abused children while they’re being interviewed, or help those recovering from psychological trauma.

In a hospital, dogs help with physical and mental rehabilitation, motivating patients and doing tasks that help with mobility. They also help increase morale among the staff.

Riverside Health System, which operates five hospitals and a number of rehab, behavioral and retirement facilities in Hampton Roads, was the first health facility in Virginia to receive a service dog when Ekko arrived at the rehab center in 2011. Riverside Rehabilitation Institute, located off the Chesapeake Avenue waterfront, is a 50-bed, full-service physical rehabilitation center and the only stroke-certified rehab hospital on the Peninsula.

Ekko joined the center’s staff after Wendy Bunting, director of inpatient therapy services, submitted an application to Saint Francis. Ekko lives with Bunting and her family in Hampton, Virginia, but at Riverside she works with recreational therapist Liz Faulls. The two women affectionately refer to each other as “work mom” and “home mom,” and both love Ekko dearly. They are both trained to work with service dogs.

A golden retriever mix with black and tan fur, Ekko was part of a litter of three puppies donated to Saint Francis as potential service dogs. She spent her first year in the Prison Pup Program at Bland Correctional Center, where puppies are raised by inmates and learn basic obedience and socialization.

Read the full Health Journal story here.

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Published: July 3, 2015