New facility dog to serve patients with autism, developmental disabilities

GREENVILLE, S.C. – For some children, a visit to the doctor can be a nerve-wracking experience. For children with autism or other developmental disabilities, the unfamiliar noises and procedures associated with a doctor’s visit can have much more serious effects, potentially triggering anxiety, panic attacks and tantrums that leave both patient and parent feeling defeated before the visit even begins.

But a new facility dog at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Upstate will soon help comfort and distract these patients, improving the experience for both patients and families.

This facility dog will join the four current members of the Canine F.E.T.C.H. (Friends Encouraging Therapeutic Coping and Healing) Unit, and is primarily funded through the generosity of students and parents at Greenville County School’s Stone Academy of Communication Arts. The dog will be the first to work on the Prisma Health Patewood Medical Campus and will greet patients in the developmental-behavioral pediatric clinic and even accompany patients to appointments as needed.

Even in everyday scenarios, patients with developmental conditions often experience heightened levels of anxiety and stress. When in an unfamiliar environment such as a doctor’s office, that anxiety is often magnified to an extreme degree and may cause children to react negatively or in ways they can’t control. For example, children with autism are often sensitive to touch, and a physical exam may cause the child to react by lashing out in a tantrum and hurting someone. The child may also shut down emotionally, refusing to speak to the provider or answer questions. These reactions make routine doctor’s visits highly tense situations that can be difficult to navigate. The facility dog will work to help calm and distract patients, allowing care to be delivered in a less stressful environment for both patient and parent.

“Many of the children we see may fear being in an unfamiliar setting like a doctor’s office. We also see many of our patients regularly, and these appointments can be a chronic source of stress for parents,” said Karen Ratliff-Schaub, MD, chief of developmental pediatrics at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Upstate. “Having a facility dog available to greet and calm patients will be a wonderful way to put both children and families at ease, helping us deliver quality care in a positive way.”

Before beginning service at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Upstate, the new dog will undergo extensive training at Canine Assistants, a Georgia nonprofit that specializes in training facility dogs and other service dogs. Each dog begins training at two to three days old and learns the patience and discipline required to work in a high-touch environment for up to eight hours per day. When the dogs are ready to graduate to full hospital employment, handlers attend a one-week training session to be matched with a dog based on personality and ability.

Stone Academy, a public magnet school with students in kindergarten through fifth grade, chose the Canine F.E.T.C.H. Unit as their 2019 philanthropic partner to provide support for their peers who may be sick or in need of special care. Stone Academy has previously raised money for Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Upstate to foster a spirt of public service and generosity throughout the school and the community.

“Our students and families demonstrate a great appreciation and love for others,” said Brett Vaughn, principal of Stone Academy. “We recognize the important role the facility dogs serve in the health care setting. By providing for a facility dog in this program, our students will have a tangible reminder of their willingness to give. We are excited to know the dog we are supporting will offer extra help and encouragement for children visiting developmental pediatrics, and will impact the lives of our neighbors, friends and families across our community.”

The school’s fundraising efforts will help cover the $25,000 cost of the dog. Fundraising plans include the Heart of Gold Ball and the upcoming Boosterthon field day experience. Additional community donations are also encouraged to reach this fundraising goal.

To give to the facility dog program, visit, or text to give by texting GOFETCH to 41444. To support Stone Academy’s efforts, text STONEROCKS.

“The Canine F.E.T.C.H. unit is a beloved part of our children’s hospital, and we are so excited to see it growing as the community begins to understand the important work that these dogs do,” said Robin LaCroix, MD, medical director of Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Upstate. “Our dogs are in high demand, so to have one dedicated to this special group of patients that really need some extra care when they come through our doors is a great expansion for our program.”

The Canine F.E.T.C.H. Unit’s newest member is expected to arrive at the end of the calendar year.




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