Phebe is hard to resist, her small bright eyes and tiny nose beckoning passing children, older women in wheelchairs and stubble-chinned grown men whose voices raise an octave when they speak to her.

Pat McCartney took Phebe to Harbor Square in Egg Harbor Township to get this kind of attention, to be held, or petted or ignored.

This is part of her training.

McCartney is training Phebe, her 4-month-old Shetland sheepdog, to one day become a therapy dog - the kind used in South Jersey hospitals, long-term care facilities and nursing homes to cheer up patients.

Volunteers such as McCartney, 68, of Egg Harbor Township, are the backbone of such programs, raising their pets to bear noisy rooms, dozens of strangers, and constant petting and ear-scratching.

"I went to the hospital once and a lady says, 'Please come in and see my father.' The nurse said he was unresponsive," said McCartney, who has been raising her pets as therapy dogs for nearly 25 years. "I picked up my dog and went in and said, 'Hi, sir, do you like dogs?' And the lady says, 'Dad, do you want to pet the dog?'

"And up comes his hand," she said.

"I just think it's a wonderful thing that a dog can make that much of a difference in a person's life, even if just for five minutes they forget they're in a hospital, they forget they're sick," she said.

The impact of therapy pets on patients is mostly told through anecdotal stories, but some new clinical studies are underway.

One South Jersey-based study found they helped heart patients get home from the hospital sooner.

Cumberland County-based Inspira Health Network, when it was known as South Jersey Healthcare, did a nursing study published in 2011 involving a hospital therapy greyhound named Gypsy.

Published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, the study found patients were more likely to walk to aid their recoveries when they could walk with Gypsy. On average, they also went home a day sooner - from seven days to six days.

Sami Abate, magnet program director for Inspira Health, was a primary investigator on that study.

"I knew they walked farther, we got that feeling early on, but I could not have predicted the ripple effect it had. They walked twice as far, got out of the hospital a day sooner, and they didn't realize they were walking farther," she said.

Inspira has five therapy pet teams - two at its behavioral health center in Bridgeton, two at its Vineland hospital and one at its Salem County hospital, she said.

As with heart patients, Abate said, the use of therapy dogs to motivate walking in the hospital has been slowly expanding to other patients who may benefit from getting out of bed.

"There are lots of reasons for patients to want to stay in bed. Sometimes they need the added motivation, and that's where our research came from," she said.

Another new study, a 12-month clinical trial by the American Humane Association and animal health company Zoetic, is underway to gauge the effect of therapy dogs on young cancer patients.

"After years of anecdotal evidence pointing to its effectiveness, we are hoping to examine in a rigorous manner the scientific underpinning of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy on children with cancer," Robin Ganzer, American Humane Association's president, said in a statement.

McCartney, a member of the Pinelands K-9 Club in Atlantic County, said her prior dog, Robin, was a fixture at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point and the first such dog at the hospital.

Hospitals often require the pets to undergo some training certification - one of the more prominent ones is from Therapy Dogs International, based in Flanders, Morris County.

In Cape May County, Kiki Miller and Karen Wadding of Dennis Township have been taking their two black lab/golden retriever mixes to Cape Regional Medical Center and to area nursing homes for five years.

The 8-year-old dogs Maddie and Riley, which came from the same liter, went through obedience training and then certification through the similarly named Therapy Dogs Inc., of Cheyenne, Wyo.

Wadding, 53, recalled an instance in which a woman unable to speak sat in her hospital bed with her mother by her side when she and Maddie walked into the room.

"I brought Maddie over so Maddie could put her paw out … (the woman) would make a ticking sound, with her tongue on the roof of her mouth. … When the girl did that, the mom grabbed her own face, and she said, 'Oh, my God, she does that when she's really happy or excited," she said.

Lisa DiTroia, director of Advocacy, Experience and Volunteer Services at Shore Medical Center, said the hospital uses about eight volunteer handlers and their therapy dogs.

"It does lighten the mood, it helps with anxiety, and the smiles it brings are a beautiful thing," she said. "They can barely make it through the lobby without being stopped."

AtlantiCare currently has two volunteer handlers who bring their therapy dogs to its hospital rooms and elsewhere.

"There's such a high demand for these types of visits, I can't tell you how much it means to the patients and the staff," said Dee Smythe, coordinator for AtlantiCare's Creative Arts and Healing Program.

In December, AtlantiCare dedicated a portrait to one of its therapy dogs at the Stanley M. Grossman Pediatrics Center. Riley, a Wheaten terrier, died in May. Riley's owner was Longport volunteer Marvin Ashner.

McCartney's dog Robin died at age 10 last year, euthanized after a tumor in her shoulder quickly spread to her leg. A vet suggested amputating the shoulder and the leg.

"I couldn't do it to her," McCartney said.

Now, McCartney is working to train Phebe to become a therapy pet, too. After she turns a year old, the dog can take a test through Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer group, and be observed in nursing homes before becoming certified.

At Harbor Square, formerly known as the Shore Mall, McCartney was teaching Phebe to be calm - with people petting her and with the nearby slamming of glass doors.

At that moment, Brian DeFranco was pushing his mother, Gladys DeFranco, 93, in a wheelchair. DeFranco was recovering from a leg injury.

McCartney saw a chance.

"Oh my God, she's cute," said Gladys DeFranco, of Upper Township.

"Do you want to hold her," McCartney said.

"I don't want to hurt her."

"You won't hurt her."

"Oh my God, she's cute," Gladys DeFranco said again, a smile spreading across her face as she held the tiny dog in her arms.

Afterwards, as they walked away, Brian DeFranco turned to McCartney and said, "She loved that."

Contact Brian Ianieri:

609-272-7253609-272-7253