Lindy loves visiting hospital patients at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville. The 7-year old Golden Retriever visits them weekly year round as part of Mayo’s Caring Canines program, with her volunteer owner Joan Streightiff. On a typical visit, Lindy and Streightiff spend two hours making rounds, visiting patients and their families in several waiting areas, including radiation oncology, surgery, radiology and ophthalmology.

During the holiday season, Lindy wears a colorful Christmas wreath around her neck, so she can help spread holiday cheer to people who are experiencing stressful medical situations, often far from home.

“During the holidays, more families come in, and then it’s really great to have a dog visit them,” Streightiff says. “They are a great diversion, especially for the children. Lindy gets down on the floor and plays with them.”

And then there is Cami, a long coat Chihuahua owned by Caring Canines volunteer Sandy Mercier, also dresses up for the holidays. She has several outfits, including one that transforms her into Santa’s elf, and another into a tiny reindeer.

“People are drawn to the dogs,” and Cami craves the attention she gets at Mayo, Mercier says. “When she sees me put on my Mayo uniform, she immediately starts whining.” Cami  has hundreds of outfits, which she wears year round on special occasions, including a green surgeon scrub suit, complete with mask and stethoscope.

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People tend to be under stress when they come for medical tests or treatment, Mercier says, “You can see the tension in their shoulders and face. Then they see a furry little thing in a human outfit. Right away, they smile and their shoulders drop. It lifts the whole mood.”

The Caring Canines program launched four years ago with six dogs, but now there are 32 pups bringing smiles to those struggling with illness. Participating dogs, along with their owners are trained, tested and registered with one of three nationally recognized organizations: Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs Inc., or Therapy Dogs International. They represent a variety of breeds “all shapes and all sizes,” says Streightiff, Caring Canines Service Chair. Ranging from a Great Pyrenees, Golden Doodles, a Yorkie, an Australian Shepherd, miniature and standard Poodles and mixed breed rescues…it is a mixed pack with one mission: to bring comfort.

The dogs are trained to stay calm while meeting and greeting a variety of strangers, including those who are emotionally and physically fragile, and using wheelchairs and walkers. Combined, the program’s dogs see about 1,500 patients and visitors a month.

Lindy loves it so much that “she makes noises in the parking lot to let me know she’s glad she’s here,” Streightiff says. “It’s a very good feeling to watch the impact your dog has.” It opens up communication, “because people share their stories with you. They show pictures of their dogs. They are very appreciative you are here.” Especially during the holidays. “Whenever people see a dog, they cheer up immediately,” she says. “When you have them dressed up, it’s even better.”