True Champion Lends His Paw for Healing

Ki Welch watches her dog Connor as he interacts with Richard Wilkerson at VacaValley Hospital.

Anyone who has loved and been loved by a dog has found his champion. That’s why patients confined to a hospital bed, away from family and pets, have nothing but smiles after a visit from a Paws for Healing therapy dog.

Now a true champion is walking the halls of NorthBay Medical Center and NorthBay VacaValley Hospital: Grand Champion Shine On Here’s Looking at You Kid, aka Connor. The large Irish Setter, owned by Ki Welch of Vacaville, never fails to turn heads with his commanding presence and gentle eyes. When he’s not in the show ring, competing in agility trials or out chasing jack rabbits, Connor is content to plop himself on a patient’s bed for a one-on-one visit.

“We try to visit once a week, rotating between the two hospitals,” said Ki. “Patients seem to love a big dog because they stand at eye level with them. And patients’ families often stop us in the hall and ask if Connor can visit their loved one.”

The value of pets in the healing process isn’t new. Back in 1860, Florence Nightingale recommended small pets as companions for the sick. More than 150 years later, studies have shown that during dog visits, patients experience a reduction in blood pressure, a slower respiratory rate and even reduced pain—all indications of a relaxation response.

At 74 pounds, Connor is one of the largest dogs in the pet therapy program. His long red hair gets a bath and blow dry before every hospital visit, along with a nail trim and teeth brushing.

“I think he loves it,” Ki said of their hospital visits. “Connor is very friendly, however, he can sense when a patient doesn’t want a visit.” But when he’s invited in, Connor offers much more than a wagging tail and warm nose. He’s happy to demonstrate his obedience training, complete with a ‘high five’ at the end.

Ki, a retired school teacher, became involved in pet therapy as a volunteer with Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) in Walnut Creek. And, with The Pet Hug Pack, she began visiting John Muir Medical Center with her Irish Setter, Emma, who is Connor’s great aunt.

“When we moved to Vacaville, I knew I wanted to continue to visit hospitals,” Ki explained. “I did my research, found Paws for Healing and Connor and went through their rigorous training program.” Then Connor was ready to step into his great aunt’s paw prints.

The 4-year-old Connor is still very much a show dog, spending his weekends either on the dog show circuit or competing at the Masters Level in agility. With all of his activities, you could say he’s a well-rounded dog.

“Irish Setters are described as having a ‘rollicking personality,'” Ki added. “This is my fourth Irish Setter and I would highly recommend them as a family dog.”

Paws for Healing, based in Napa, has dispatched volunteers and their certified therapy dogs to NorthBay’s two hospitals for more than 15 years. Founded in 1998, the nonprofit organization has more than 200 active teams visiting hospitals, mental health facilities, special education classes, adult day care centers, cancer units, hospice and cancer support groups, rehabilitation units, assisted living and senior care residences. If you are interested in the program, visit

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