GREENVILLE, SC – An outpouring of community support has helped GHS Children’s Hospital bring three specially-trained full-time “facility dogs” to GHS to work one-on-one with pediatric patients in a therapeutic model that blends high-tech medicine with the joy that only a four-legged friend can bring.
“Facility dogs are a great source of comfort, support and distraction for children, especially those who have to be in the hospital frequently or for long periods of time,” said Emily Durham, supervisor of Child Life Services at Children’s Hospital of Greenville Health System. “These dogs show unconditional love and acceptance to all the children, families and staff they meet. And that’s a great way to start off a medical experience at Children’s Hospital.”
Unlike most pet therapy dogs, facility dogs are specially trained to work within a healthcare environment. The dogs receive additional training as service animals so that they are able to actually assist children during procedures and exams, unlike pet-therapy dogs whose focus is on providing love and comfort.
Research shows that pet-assisted therapy can even help reduce pain in children, with one study showing that the pain reduction experienced within 15 minutes by children working with a dog is comparable to adults taking acetaminophen.
The expanded program is made possible by support from donors including Ace Hardware Foundation, Laura Hodges, Angela Bostick, Janes Eanes, Susan Baum, Peggy Bagwell, Lisa Holliday and in-kind support from Crosswinds Animal Hospital, Paws and Claws and Posh Paws. More than $30,000 has already been raised to help bring the program to Children’s Hospital, with GHS also planning to raise pay-it-forward monies so that animal-assisted therapy can continue to grow.
Thanks to the expanded access to specially trained teams of dogs and handlers, care can now be provided to more children – as the children most need it and in a more therapeutic matter. The current pet therapy program, which uses volunteer programs that brings dogs on a bi-monthly basis, was limited to specific days and times and so could only offer limited patient access to dogs.
The two just-arrived dogs – Chevy, a golden/lab/poodle mix, and Vivi, a golden/poodle mix – work one-on-one with children in their rooms, treatment areas and as they undergo MRIs, X-rays and procedures requiring sedation. The dogs and their specially trained handlers, who are child life specialists at Children’s Hospital, work as a team to provide comfort, support and distraction.
Vivi, who is based in pediatric radiology with child life specialist Taylor Stathes, almost daily “demonstrates” to children how to lie still for a MRI or other radiology procedure. Her counterpart, Chevy, snuggles with patients during treatment to provide a comforting, distracting presence when the peanut-butter-loving yellow fur-ball isn’t making his rounds along Children’s Hospital hallways.
“It is amazing to see the climate change when Vivi enters a room,” said Stathes. “A child who was once scared to open up and talk to anyone is suddenly laughing and really letting their personality shine through. Not only does Vivi brighten the day of our patients and families, she gives comfort and love to our precious staff when they are in need. It is like she knows exactly what to do and who to go to at any given time.”
Katie Sullivan, the child life specialist who is partnered with Chevy, said he can be a better motivator than parents and staff sometimes. “We have had kids after surgery who will make a special effort to get out of bed and get on the ground to pet him or walk down the hall to see him,” she said. “Lots of his ‘regular’ patients comment on how seeing Chevy is the best part of their day and they look forward to when he gets to stop by their room. His main job is just to help make the hospital seem less like a hospital – and he and Vivi are great at their jobs.”
Both Stathes and Sullivan carry hand sanitizer with them since everyone has to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer both before and after petting the dogs. The dogs, who are frequently bathed, also have spot clean-ups throughout the day as needed.
The dogs have undergone extensive training through Milton, Ga-based Canine Assistants, a non-profit organization which trains and provides service dogs for children and adults with physical disabilities or other special needs. It also trains facility dogs for medical facilities such as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Children’s Mercy Hospital, Cook Children’s and Dallas Medical Center.
A third dog, slated to arrive in September, will work with children seen through the Child Abuse Medical Advocacy Program (CHAMP) at GHS Children’s Hospital.
“The children who come to our office have been referred due to a concern for possible child abuse,” said Mary-Fran Crosswell, a child abuse pediatrician at Children’s Hospital. “As a result, both patients and their caregivers often have a heightened level of angst and worry about what the medical exam will entail. We make every attempt to minimize the stress of the medical evaluation as much as possible, but I am particularly excited about the many ways a facility dog will help Child Life defuse the anxiety experienced by these children. From sitting with a child while she tells her story or helping another through his physical exam, a facility dog will be a wonderful addition to our team.”
The third dog will travel with its child life therapist/handler to sites served by the CHAMP program, including Julie Valentine Center, Pendleton Place and offices in Spartanburg.
“These pet therapies may seem small in the broad scope of medicine, but they can have a huge impact on children and families – and they are definitely good medicine,” said William Schmidt, MD, PhD, medical director of Children’s Hospital. “This program wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous and ongoing support of our community.”
For more information on ways to support the animal-assisted therapy program at Children’s Hospital, visit ghsgiving.org/facility-dog or contact Cathy Jones, in the GHS Office of Philanthropy, at 864/797-7748 or firstname.lastname@example.org.