Ever year, Children’s Hospital Colorado has thousands of kids passing through its doors. Some are here for minor troubles and some for major medical crises. Whatever the situation may be for these children and their families, it can be a testing and traumatic time. Even with a team of highly trained medical professionals and loved ones, the environment can be bewildering and isolating. Enter the award-winning Prescription Pet Program (also known as RxPets), bringing love and comfort of the furry four-legged kind. We all know how much joy our pets contribute to our lives, but when I visited with the RxPets team, I experienced firsthand what a positive effect these devoted, specially trained volunteer dogs and their owners generate as they did their rounds at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
This dog-assisted therapy and visitation program began in 1984 as a cooperative effort of Children’s Hospital Colorado and the Denver Area Veterinary Medical Society (DAVMS). The pilot program started with the oncology unit and a three legged dog that had lost a leg to a tumor. All the kids would ask why the dog only had three legs. “The fact that the dog had a tumor was a great conversation starter for the kids. They could relate to this and could identify,” enthused Sara Mark, a volunteer vet who has served with the program since its pilot days.
Sara, whose responsibilities include writing and updating the protocols, shared both heartwarming and sad stories with Paws & Read, remembering when her own therapy dog, Pokey (a 13-year old Australian Terrier), comforted a sick girl at her bedside. Pokey sat up at her chest and listened patiently as the child whispered into the pooch’s ears. Weeks later the girl passed, leaving her heartfelt words forever confidential with the caring canine.
More and more moving stories unfold: the little girl who wasn’t able to walk amazed everyone by getting up and walking with ‘her’ therapy dog to the elevator—she was determined to accompany the dog so he could soothe other kids like her. A determined father pleaded for a therapy dog to comfort his vegetative son. The dog visited every day for six weeks. Initially the boy’s arm was put on the dog; after two weeks the little boy was reaching for the dog and after six weeks, defying all odds, the boy was trying to walk to the dog.
“These pets have an amazing, uplifting effect on the patients, parents, and staff” states Darby Kelly, the Chapter President. “The dogs come in and the atmosphere immediately brightens! It’s an instant break from routine for everyone.” Darby adds, “But these dogs are not just any dogs.” All Prescription Pet dogs and their committed owners have passed a rigorous evaluation and have been approved by vets who volunteer their time.
The trained volunteers must be a minimum of 18-years old and their dogs must be between 2-years and 9-years of age at the start of their participation. All dogs must pass a thorough behavioral, temperament,
and medical screening. These tests are repeated at least twice a year. The dogs are groomed before each visit, and, to minimize shedding and dander, all dogs are required to wear a vest or shirt.
The visits can last from a few minutes to up to an hour, depending on the child’s response. Some patients want to play and pat the dogs and some just want to snuggle. A patient’s emotional needs can be draining on a dog, especially larger breeds. The dogs’ comfort must be considered, as it is vital that these special canines are not stressed or tired when interacting with patients.
Michelle and her doe-eyed Golden Retriever, Maggie, joined us in the room. I instantly felt a sense of calm as Maggie padded over to say ‘hi’ with her glossy coal nose. When I asked Michelle what she enjoys most, she lights up as she tells me. “The first beneficiary of compassion is always oneself.
When compassion, or warm-heartedness, arises in us and our focus shifts away from our own narrow self-interest, it is as if we open an inner door. It reduces fear, boosts confidence and brings us inner strength. By reducing distrust, it opens us to others and brings us a sense of connection—a sense of purpose and meaning in life.”
Also, each dog has their own business card, complete with photo and bio. “The kids just love to collect these,” she laughs.
Maggie will soon be assisting the medical staff, as needed, in the physical rehabilitation department. The physiotherapy dogs have a developed skill set to pick up an item and to bring it to the patient who will then reach out and take the object. In this instance the dogs are part of the treatment plan. Michelle (who has been volunteering with Maggie since July 2011) is really looking forward to Maggie’s next assignment so that she can use her wonderful gifts for the benefit of others.
These special pups are all committed to the cause of comforting and helping young patients to heal. The program takes these dedicated dog owners away from their stresses for a while and reminds them of the selfless joy that an animal can bring.
If you would like to learn more about how you can become involved in the Children’s Hospital Colorado Prescription Pet Program or other volunteer opportunities, please contact the Volunteer Office at 720.777.6887
Written by Ali French – Mar/April 2012