Canines Clock In At Cook Children’s
Sit ... Stay ... PLAY: Pioneering dog-therapy program comforts patients
By Victoria Shelton
Cook Children’s has brought in visiting dogs for decades as a way to help patients and their families cope with their situations, but it was one of the first hospitals nationwide to realize the value in having dogs as badge-yielding staff members.
“People wouldn’t have pets the way they do and treat them like family members if there wasn’t something to that,” said Facility Dog Program Coordinator Kizzy Marco.
Just over three years ago, Ralph and Chanel became the first dogs to join Sit...Stay....PLAY, the facility dog program at Cook Children's.
“We are pioneering something really new,” said Marco. “The majority of hospitals in the country have animal-assisted therapy or dogs that visit routinely and that’s wonderful, but having them here as residents and as employees makes such a difference.”
As facility dog program coordinator, a large portion of Marco’s job involves handling Ralph, answering referrals and working one-on-one with patients and their families.
“I feel like people moved mountains to make these dogs available for our patients and families,” said Marco. “I’ve always loved working at Cook Children’s, but that was the moment I realized how much this place cares, probably beyond words, about the emotional well-being of its patients. Of course health care exists to take care of people physically, but we also have a responsibility to take care of people emotionally and these dogs are doing that.”
When Ralph comes in contact with a patient, the atmosphere changes immediately.
“I’ve seen kids at their very sickest,” said Marco. “I’ve seen kids at the end of their lives light up to see Ralph.”
Stephanie Myers witnessed the power of dog therapy first-hand when her 4-year-old daughter Baylee was introduced to Ralph after being diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma.
“She hadn’t walked or gotten out of bed in about a week,” said Myers. “Kizzy brought Ralph in and I saw a light in Baylee’s eyes I hadn’t seen in a while. She instantly wanted to sit up and then stand so she could pet him.”
Ralph brought normalcy and softness to the situation with Baylee, as he does with so many others.
“Anytime Baylee has needed a little push, Ralph has been there to guide her through it,” said Myers. “He is such an amazing therapy dog and has given our daughter strength and a smile when we thought she might be out.”
“What our dogs do for patients is deep. A patient once vulnerably told me that he loved Ralph because he knew Ralph would never judge him. That says it all right there,” said Marco.
Because of the large number of both inpatient and outpatient cases, therapy dogs are not able to sit on every child’s bed or walk the halls with them or get ready for surgery with them.
However, many patients, families and staff members get the experience of seeing one of the dogs in passing walking down the hallway or in the cafeteria, which Marco considers a therapeutic encounter.
“You don’t know what people are carrying emotionally when they’re walking through the hallways,” said Marco, “so adding this goofy, smiling, prancing, fluffy, handsome Golden Retriever to the environment is so important. If you never knew a single patient story, if you never knew how much of an impact these dogs make, just knowing that is huge.”
When Ralph does have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a patient, they form a bond so strong that every child thinks Ralph is their best friend. When they see him and start calling his name, his tail starts to wag, he squints his eyes and starts shaking around with excitement.
“It’s almost like he remembers every kid he’s ever met,” said Marco.
While the dogs are a friendly face for children at the medical center, they really do serve an important role in the physical and emotional well-being of these patients.
Whether giving a dog a syringe of water mixed with juice to get a child to take medicine or taking him for a walk to get kids up and moving, these animals are trained to relate to the patients and their difficult experiences in a way that normalizes their environment and gives them something else to focus on.
Using dogs as a means of reducing anxiety in patients is especially true for Child Advocacy Resources and Evaluation (CARE) Team, which assesses cases of child abuse.
“When you’re talking about abuse and really difficult subjects with these kids, having a dog there can really ease their anxiety and help them voice what happened to them,” said Jamye Coffman, M.D., a child abuse pediatrician at Cook Children’s. “When you reduce the anxiety in a child, it reduces all the stress hormones so you don’t have any of the effects of stress on the child that can contribute to illness.”
Dr. Coffman has handled Kitty since she came to Cook Children’s nearly a year and a-half ago. Kitty stays with the CARE Team and is trained to jump up on the couch with patients when they are being interviewed to help relax them and their parents, making the environment feel less like a doctor’s office and more like a home.
But there is also an art to the things that dogs can do innately, the things that cannot be taught.
Not long after Marco and Ralph began working as a team, they were asked to visit a patient with a severe developmental delay. Marco was admittedly nervous because this patient was unpredictable in her movements and she was not sure how Ralph would react.
Without hesitation, Ralph walked up to the patient, looked her in the eyes and put his head on her lap while he sat there and let her do whatever she wanted.
“That’s the true gift of our dogs is that they don’t see any differences,” said Marco. “We know patients whose illness or treatments make them look or behave in a certain way. We know the ones that have especially great challenges, and hopefully it doesn’t alter how we interact with them, but Ralph doesn’t even know those things.”
For that child and her family, interacting with Ralph was a completely normal experience and there was nothing atypical about the situation.
“That’s an innate art that is something that we as a health system found a way to provide. It had never been provided to our patients and their families before,” said Marco. “It is very humbling to know that our dogs can make moments like that happen for families.”
It's important to remember that Ralph is only one dog out of five at Cook Children’s, making up only one-fifth of the program. Our most recent addition is a 2 year old Golden named Lulu who started working in inpatient psychiatry and partial hospitalization program just about a month ago.
Every day these dogs have encounters like this one, and every day they are doing something to make the hospital a better place for patients and their families.
The impact that these dogs have made and the moments they have shared with people in the time they have been at Cook Children’s is remarkable.
“It is profound that they know and have the ability to mourn with people who are mourning, to celebrate with people who are celebrating and to play with people who are playing,” said Marco. “I think there is a bond or intuition that connects them to people exactly where they are, and to watch that is amazing."
How to Help
The generosity of donors helps make it possible for Cook Children's to bring programs like Sit ... Stay ... PLAY to our patients. To support our dog therapy program and other programs like it, please call 682-885-4105 or donate online by clicking here. Learn more about Sit ... Stay ... PLAY by clicking here.