Dogs as employees help patients, families and hospital staff by providing love and comfort.
By Kaitie Marolf
Hunter relaxes on a patient’s bed during one of his in room visits.
Aimee Hoflander, patient activity coordinator at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, stopped to sanitize her hands before walking into the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit and knocking on a patient's door. “Hey, I brought Hunter. Would you like to visit?” She entered the room, grabbed an isolation gown off of a shelf and patted the foot of the bed. “Come on, Hunter, lay down.”
Hunter, a 2-year-old golden retriever, calmly climbed onto the bed. Noah, a 17-year-old who has been receiving treatment for sickle cell anemia at Children’s Mercy his entire life, sat up, gently reached for Hunter’s ears and leaned forward, laying his forehead against the dog’s. Both of them closed their eyes. “Sometimes what patients need more than anything else is a good cuddle,” Hoflander, Hunter’s handler, says. “The staff can’t give them that, but the dogs can.”
Hunter is part of Children’s Mercy’s facility dog program and works primarily on the oncology floor. The program launched when he and Hope, who works at a satellite location’s epilepsy wing, arrived from their training at Canine Assistants in Atlanta in summer 2015. “For a child going through tests they’re not familiar with or situations that make them uncomfortable, there is nothing more calming than to be able to sit with a dog and pet them,” Ann Killen, one of the program’s donors, says of Hope’s impact on the epilepsy unit.
Implementing hospital-employed therapy dogs
Prior to bringing these dogs on full time, Children’s Mercy had Pet Pals, a program where volunteers bring their certified therapy dogs to meet with patients in a group setting. The process of starting the facility dog program, which gives patients more one-on-one access and room visits than Pet Pals, took several years, from addressing health concerns to figuring out who would handle the dogs.
When the child life therapists submitted a strategic initiative regarding the program, hospital leaders were enthusiastic about it, but said funding needed to come from donations. The philanthropy team approached two dog-loving donors and ended up with donations from Nick and Jake’s Fore the Kids Golf Tournament and from Ann and her husband Mark. The donations covered the cost of handler training, transportation and the costs to keeping the dogs healthy throughout their careers at Children’s Mercy.
A patient spends time with Hunter during a private visit.
With the plan approved, Hoflander and Allison Bowring, Hope’s handler, flew to Atlanta to pick up the hospital's new employees and learn how to handle them during the week-long handler training period. “I was nervous-excited on the way to Atlanta,” Hoflander says. “I didn’t know what kind of dog I was getting or if it would be a boy or a girl. I was pregnant at the time, so that probably contributed, but the anticipation of getting a new family member was still there. It’s not like going to pick out a puppy.”
During the training, they developed relationships with each dog and learned about bond-based choice training. This is different from the traditional obedience training that Hoflander was used to with her own dogs. The goal is to create educated, rather than submissive dogs. Because the dogs live in their handlers’ homes and go to work with them every day, this bond forms naturally.
“Hunter listens because he loves me and wants to please me. A lot of people think the dogs know they start working when the vest goes on; I haven’t seen that. It’s more about the environment. If we’re in public around a lot of people, he acts like he’s working. That’s where the education comes in; he just knows.”
Watching out for safety
Having a dog among immunocompromised patients necessitated a precautionary system. Anyone who wants to pet Hunter must sanitize his or her hands before and after contact to protect both parties. Parents are required to sign a release stating Hunter can visit their children, and patients in isolation are not allowed visits from Hunter.
As Hoflander and Hunter stop to chat by the front desk, he pulls gently toward a room with the door closed. Seven-year-old Aimee, who has been receiving treatment for Ewing sarcoma for nine months, is on contact isolation behind the door. She is one of his usual stops. “She gets upset when she can’t see him,” says her mom Stephany. “When he first started coming around, I could see how he uplifted her.”
A typical work day
Making the rounds with Hunter is just part of Hoflander’s job: She also coordinates child life events and daily activities. Most of the time, Hunter stays with her throughout the day, although he has a kennel at the hospital where he goes to rest periodically and after any particularly stressful patient visits.
Hunter and Hope’s ability to sense how patients are feeling is visible to those who watch the interactions, says Jenea Oliver, vice president of philanthropy. “Both of them get a little closer if the child needs it or stand back a bit if the child needs more space. It’s just an intuition that they have with kids.”
While the dogs are primarily there for the patients, they help the staff, parents and siblings as well. Jenny Nordin, who has been a nurse on the oncology floor for eight years, says Hunter’s presence has lessened the “hospital” feel of the unit. “We have a lot of bad news lingering around, and he helps take our minds, as well as the patients’ and families’ minds, off of those negative events that loom over us,” she says.
In addition to daily bedside visits, the dogs keep patients company during tough conversations and join therapy sessions on occasion. “With kids that are more difficult to pull them out of their shells, shy or withdrawn, he’ll hop on the bed and you can see an instant smile,” Nordin says. “You can immediately see a patient’s change in attitude when he’s in the room.”