Puppy love: Children’s researches dog visitation program for hospitalized kids

A team at Children’s Hospital Boston is currently in the midst of a research initiative, poring over videotapes of patient visits to examine an evolving therapeutic tool that brings the concept of “hands-on” care to a whole new level.

Tucker, a Golden Retriever, reports for duty at Children’s.

But instead of the traditional white coats, the visitors in these videos sport white, black, brown and golden ones; all made of fur. Aimee Lyons, RN, BSN, MSN, director of Nursing and Patient Services for the Medical/Surgical Intensive Care Unit, Maura Ammon, MSW, LCSW and Kathryn Atkinson, MSW, LCSW, both social workers in Children’s Center for Families, are studying how dog visits affect hospitalized kids. The research will be used to enhance Children’s Pawprints Program, which sets up supervised dog visits between hospitalized children and their families to provide a fun, interactive diversion from their usual hospital routine.

“We’re looking closely at how the dogs react throughout the stages, but what we appreciate most about dogs is exactly what the kids respond to,” says Lyons, who expects to finalize the study later this year. “Dogs don’t care if the child in front of them is sick; they’re just so happy to see that child.”

Dog visits may be just what the doctor ordered for some hospitalized kids

A lifelong dog lover, Lyons was instrumental in establishing the Pawprints Program in 2003. As part of a multidisciplinary team, including Child Life and Infection Control specialists, Lyons and her colleagues now oversee a team of 12 volunteer dog-and-owner pairs. Each pair is assigned to a particular inpatient unit, making twice-monthly visits to the floor and seeing as many as seven children—from toddlers to teens—on any given day. Children’s clinicians refer kids who have been medically cleared for contact with the dogs, and families often request visits for patients who are missing beloved pets at home.

Pawprints’ canine contingent has been carefully screened and thoroughly prepared for their mission. Before entering the program, each dog undergoes an extensive behavioral evaluation, is tested and vaccinated for communicable diseases, and gradually introduced to the sights, sounds and smells of the hospital. Along with their owners, the dogs receive ongoing training sessions to ensure their comfort level. Even after they begin making visits, they’re routinely tested, assessed and guided by human-psychologist-turned-dog-trainer Amy Koel, PhD.

“We’re very fortunate to have Amy as a trainer, as well as Karen Krueger, DVM [a veterinarian-on-call at Children’s],” says Atkinson. “We’ve covered our bases very conscientiously. Our goal is to do things the right way for everyone—our patients and families, our staff, our wonderful volunteers and their wonderful dogs.”

Duncan, a Bernese Mountain Dog, pays a visit to a special friend.

The Pawprints dogs come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny terriers to a “gentle giant” of a Rottweiler named Princess. Bert—an affable yellow Labrador Retriever who’s known to stretch out and nap next to the children he meets—has a special talent: born deaf, he has learned sign language.

“Bert’s story really resonates with the kids,” Lyons says. “His owner will show them how to sign commands for him, and will explain that even though he’s never been able to hear, Bert has plenty of other talents. A lot of these kids have never known what it’s like to not be sick, but Bert reminds them that they are more than their illness.”

See video of Bert on PBS’s “Martha Speaks.”

And it’s not only the children who find their spirits lifted by soft brown eyes and a wagging tail. “Parents get so much out of watching their kids interact with the dogs,” Lyons explains. “For those 10 to 15 minutes, their child’s world is not about pain, medication, exams or procedures. They’re just reaching out and petting a dog, smiling and laughing like any other child.”

The meaning of the Pawprints Program is well reflected in an encounter between a Lab named Stella and a young boy recovering from brain surgery. Making the trip to Children’s on Christmas Eve, Stella and her owner stood quietly at the boy’s bedside. “Once his hand was placed on Stella’s head, he started moving his fingers to pet her,” recalls Ammon. “Everyone in the room was crying—his parents, the nurses, Stella’s owner. It was a moment you never forget.”

Pawprints is not recruiting volunteers at this time, but has a waiting list for interested dog owners. The Pawprints staff is happy to advise anyone interested in starting a similar initiative, please contact them at: pawprints@childrens.harvard.edu.

  • Norma

    This is medicine and there is no cost. 2 paws up for everyone !!!

  • Bestfamilytree

    My child has spent most of her 16 years in the hospital. She has been visited MANY times by different dogs. This meant so much to her because most times she had been an inpatient for long periods of time and was missing her dog at home. I would like to thank the volunteers for taking time out of their life to bring a smile to my childs face.