Hospital stays can be depressing and lonely, so having a visitor is often a welcome pick-me-up. A regular visitor with a well-earned reputation for cheering up patients is Cody — a 10-year-old mixed breed dog. Cody has a brindle color and his adoption paperwork says lab/retriever, but he weighs only 35 pounds. This mix is why many patients like to call him “Heinz 57.”

I’ve been fortunate to meet Cody several times and witnessed firsthand the positive affect he has on nearly everyone in the hospital. His owner, Brittney Betcher, and I both volunteer at St. Francis. Prior to COVID-19, Betcher brought Cody into the hospital two to three times a month, usually on weekends. They’d spend up to 90 minutes visiting patients.

“On average, we see about 10 to 40 patients, families, and staff during each visit,” Betcher told me. “We average about 25 visits a year. The goal is always quality visits not quantity.”

Raising kids ages 3 and 6 with another due in November while her husband is deployed in the army has made it challenging to visit more often. Unfortunately, she and Cody are currently on hiatus from the hospital due to the coronavirus, but are hoping to return as soon as they’re cleared to do so.

Betcher and Cody have been visiting St. Francis since March 2016. They’ve become extremely popular with patients and staff.

“The best part of visiting is seeing the joy on the faces of the patients and staff when they see Cody,” Betcher said. “The reaction from kids is usually, ‘Can I pet the dog?’ Usually parents are quick to say no. I love it when I can say, ‘Actually that is what Cody is here for. Of course you can pet him, if it’s OK with your parents.’ Cody has fan cards provided by volunteer services to hand out to patients, which is a big hit.”

In order to visit the hospital, Cody needed to be certified through Therapy Dogs International. He now holds a Canine Good Citizen certification after receiving training to pass his evaluation by Betcher and by a trainer in San Antonio, Texas, where Betcher and her family were living.

“Just like with kids, dogs need continued practice and will never act perfect,” Betcher said. “I started bringing Cody to the hospital to bring people joy and to decrease the stress of patients, family, and staff. I also wanted to give Cody an outlet to channel his anxiety. When I adopted him, he was very anxious.”

Her military service also inspired her to have a therapy dog. Betcher was in the active duty Army, stationed at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, and wanted to start a dog therapy program there.

“I ended up not getting the support I needed, so Cody and I visited the VA hospital in San Antonio from 2012 to 2016. We visited the spinal cord and polytrauma units,” she said. “Talk about seeing and making an impact with some amazing veterans! When we moved back to Minnesota, I wanted to make a difference in my community, and the staff at St. Francis took us on. I love the ability to visit just about anywhere in the hospital, pre-pandemic, except the maternity ward.”

Some of Betcher’s most memorable moments are when Cody brings comfort and happiness to kids. “My favorite experience with Cody at St. Francis was actually when Cody was allowed to assist in comforting a child who was getting blood drawn,” she said. “It shows there are many tools in medicine.”

Brett Martin is a community columnist who’s been a Shakopee resident for over 15 years.

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