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    Puppy brigade reports for duty

    A therapy dog program at a children’s hospital provides comfort for pediatric patients and families facing the unfamiliar and a sense of normalcy that makes a frightening hospital experience less so.

    It may be hard to imagine that nearly 90% of hospitals in the United States allow therapy animals and animal visits,1 and many have therapy animal programs, but there once was a time when animals were more likely to be seen as a hindrance to healing than as an aid. Even now, some individuals remain skeptical about the actual benefit derived from allowing therapy animals into hospitals and other points of care, and argue that the practice has raced ahead of the evidence.2 Ask anyone who works with patients, however, and the anecdotal evidence is clear: Having a furry friend can help heal, especially when working with children.

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    Therapy animals can range from birds and horses to cats and guinea pigs, but dogs are likely the first therapy animal that comes to mind. A variety of organizations exist to certify animals for therapy work, including Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

    In order for a prospective therapy dog to be certified by an organization, its handler must have owned the animal for at least 6 months, and he or she will often need to take a course on how to properly handle dogs. For the canine side of the equation, the dog must show basic obedience; be up-to-date on its rabies vaccination; be house trained; and have a welcoming demeanor with no history of aggression. Handlers who want more bona fides for their therapy animals are also able to receive Therapy Dog credentials from the American Kennel Club, which now comes with the Canine Good Citizen title.3

    Akron Children’s Hospital’s therapy dog program

    The second-oldest therapy dog program at a pediatric hospital in the United States, the Doggie Brigade at Akron Children’s Hospital in Akron, Ohio, boasts over 80 dogs. The teams commit to going on 26 visits per year, with each visit lasting an hour or more. Volunteer teams who visit the hospital’s main campus must also commit to attending at least 2 special events every year. The Doggie Brigade requires dogs to be registered as therapy animals via Pet Partners. While visiting, each dog must wear a bandana declaring it a member of the hospital’s therapy program and the handler must wear a shirt bearing the same identification.

    Every Doggie Brigade member gets treated like a rock star with its own baseball-style card that features its photo and specific stats, including what breed the dog is, when it joined the program, and what is its favorite treat. The handler carries copies of the cards and gives them to every child, whether patient or visitor, who interacts with the dog. For some children, a complete collection means a battle hard fought to meet every furry ambassador, and all patients get to take home their very own Beanie Baby, which has been specially designed for the hospital.

    For most of the Doggie Brigade, the typical visit lasts only a few minutes with the child getting to meet the Brigade member and the human half of the team. Those few minutes may be only a small part of the dog’s day, but the program’s website is filled with stories submitted by family members saying how comforting it was to have a dog curl up next to the child for a few minutes or how a brief moment of normalcy helped make a frightening experience less so. For certain members of the Brigade, however, their patience and calmness with people qualifies them for an even bigger job: helping children in their physical and occupational therapy sessions.



    NEXT: A day in the life of a therapy dog

    Miranda Hester
    Ms. Hester is Content Specialist with Contemporary OB/GYN and Contemporary Pediatrics.


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