Facility Dogs Provide Comfort When Therapy Dogs Can't

Facility Dogs Provide Comfort When Therapy Dogs Can't

Children’s hospital turns to full-time service dogs when pandemic visitor restrictions force the suspension of its therapy dog program.
Quick Takes

COVID-19 restricted the use of therapy dogs for many children's hospitals since their handlers are typically volunteers. UH Rainbow shifted to facility dogs to help; they bring other benefits that therapy dogs can't.

Although it was her first day on the job with the Family and Child Life Services team at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's, Melena didn't show any nerves. She'd trained extensively for this duty and was ready to jump right in.

Her first patient was Izzy, a boy nervously waiting to go into surgery. In her own way, Melena immediately brought comfort to Izzy—by climbing into the bed and cuddling with the patient.

"Izzy had heard we were getting a service dog, so he was excited to meet Melena," says Lisa Perry, certified child life specialist at UH Rainbow in Cleveland, Ohio. "There was a lot of tension in the room—Izzy and his parents were very nervous. But the next thing I know, he's just leaning back and Melena's right on top of him and he was loving it—it was exactly what everyone needed."

Facility dogs help in ways therapy dogs can't

Melena is one of two full-time service dogs (facility dogs) that began working with patients at UH Rainbow last fall. Melena assists Perry primarily in the hospital's hematology and oncology units, while the other dog, Starbucks, works with her handler in the inpatient psychiatry unit. While the hospital has used volunteer-provided therapy dogs through its Pet Pals program for more than 20 years, the facility dogs bring additional patient benefits:

  • Access. Facility dogs are allowed to go places therapy dogs aren't, so they can help soothe patients through many procedures, including IV placement, blood draws and positioning for CAT scans.
  • Consistency. UH Rainbow has about 150 therapy dogs in its system, but each visits the hospital only about once per month, so it's harder for patients to bond with any specific dog.
  • Time. Melena and Starbucks work 40-hour weeks so they're each able to see 10 to 15 patients daily and can accommodate longer visits. "They're able to help in a more significant way," Perry says. "I have one long-term patient who Melena will spend an hour lying in bed with—it's so important to her and her family to have that length of time."

Pandemic underscores need for facility dogs

Perhaps one of the most important distinctions is the role the facility dogs have played during the COVID-19 pandemic. UH Rainbow suspended the Pet Pals program last March due to COVID-19 visitor restrictions, but since the facility dogs work with staff members, they've been able to carry out their duties.

That ability proved to be pivotal. Perry says her quest to launch a facility dog program began about five years ago but had been mired in approvals at all levels for policies ranging from risk management to infection control. Fundraising had also been a hurdle—she says starting and maintaining such a program runs into the six figures. But the value the therapy dog program demonstrated for patient care, coupled with COVID visitor restrictions, fast tracked the facility dogs.

"Our administrators at the highest levels made this a priority during COVID," Perry says. "I was stunned, but very pleased. Making this happen during COVID was complicated, but we were able to do it thanks to their support."

Training, instincts guide Melena's approach

Melena lives with Perry and her family and when she's not on duty she's like any other dog. "When the work vest is off, she likes to try chasing squirrels," Perry says.

But when the work vest is on, her focus is solely on patients. She's specially trained for the hospital environment, so she knows not to disrupt tubes or wires and isn't spooked by any of the sights or sounds. 

And unlike other service animals, Melena doesn't follow a series of commands from her handler. Rather, her bond-based training dictates that she read each situation and make decisions on how best to proceed. Sometimes it's simply a paw on a patient's bed—other times, she senses a patient requires more affection.

"Melena just seems to know which patients she should be laying on top of and who needs that comfort right then—it's really impressive that every single time it's exactly what that patient wanted and needed," Perry says. "She makes such a huge difference in my practice and I'm very grateful to have her with me."

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