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Dog therapy programs at hospitals declined during the pandemic. Akron Children's Hospital is working to change that

A man in a wheelchair pets a Bernese Mountain Dog. An off-camera handler holds her leash.
Jeanette Beebe
For The Ohio Newsroom
Therapy dog Katarina greets patients, like Alexander, pictured here, throughout Akron's Children's Hospital. Research suggests work like hers can provide clinically significant pain relief.

A massive — and massively fluffy — Bernese Mountain Dog named Katarina is getting ready to start her volunteer shift with the Doggie Brigade at Akron Children's Hospital. Her handler, Jeannie Bussey, is a kindergarten teacher in Hartville who has been part of the Doggie Brigade for 17 years. Five generations of her dogs have gone through the program over the years.

"It's such a blessing to be able to do this kind of work, to come in and bring your dog and watch how your dog interacts with other people and makes a difference in children's lives," she says.

Dog therapy is offered in hospitals across Ohio, from Cincinnati to Columbus. But in Akron, at least, their numbers are down. Before the pandemic, the Doggie Brigade at Akron Children's Hospital had about 100 dogs who could visit patients. Now there's only about a third of that.

"Ideally, we would like to have multiple dogs here every single day, just because the hospital's so big and they are in such high demand, and they're used for so many different purposes," says the program's volunteer recruiter, Wendy Sawyer.

She has been at the hospital for over a quarter century. The Doggie Brigade, which is sponsored by Milk Bone, was established in 1992. Sawyer has seen the program grow and shrink.

"So many people will call and they'll say, 'Hey, we have a little one who needs some extra incentive, or somebody is having an extra bad day, or they're anticipating that there's going to be a procedure that might be a little bit scary,'" she explains. "So to be able to have a dog here every day for every shift is our goal. I'm really aiming towards meeting that goal by the end of the year."

And it’s not just children who benefit. Doctors at the hospital have approached Bussey, asking to spend 15 or 20 minutes with her dog. Amid a chaotic workday, the dog seems to help.

"They just hold the dog. I feel like the dogs address the staff needs’, also," she says.

Parents have also asked for her dogs to help, even in the most difficult of situations. In the lobby of the hospital, Bussey shares a painful memory: one time, a doctor asked her to bring Violet, her first dog in the program up to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).

"He said, 'This child is getting ready to pass,'" Bussey remembers, "'and the Mom needs something to hold. Because she can't hold the child.'"

And so the big dog went into the unit. And she sat with the grieving family. The mother held the dog as her child was dying.

Making the Rounds

These days, Bussey volunteers with two dogs: Katarina and Katarina's mother, Faith.

"I'm in the process of teaching the girls to wave," Bussey says. "Because they have such big legs and paws, I don't do high fives and shakes because I'm afraid if there's an IV, it could disrupt it."

The first patient we see is Melody, a 16-year-old from Warren who’s been at the hospital for a week and a half. The last time she was here, she stayed for about two and a half months.

"You can hug her, if you like. She loves hugs," Bussey says. "She loves seeing you as much as you love seeing her."

A teenage patient looks on an open-mouthed dog, who looks up to an off-camera handler.
Jeanette Beebe
For The Ohio Newsroom
Akron Children's hospital used to have around 100 therapy dogs. That number has dwindled during the pandemic.

"And sometimes we will take a sheet, if a patient's in a bed, and cover it," Bussey adds. "Even my big dogs know how to carefully get in, as long as it's okay with the patient. Because a lot of them just want to lay with the dog for a little bit."

Our next stop is the hematology oncology floor, for kids with blood disorders and cancer.

"Good girl, Katarina," Bussey says. "She speeds up when she gets closer to the door."

We step into a room to meet Emma, who's just 15 months old. She's got a flash of blond hair and a tiny teal onesie with unicorns on the front. She's sitting on her father's lap, with her grandparents close by. She seems to be feeling a bit shy.

"Kat’s hiding her face from her. She's being respectful because she knows the level of comfort of the child," Bussey says. "She’s offering the part of her body that is least intense."

Emma's grandmother talks to the little girl. "Do you feel it? Feels soft," she says.

"Hi, sweetie. Look," her father says. "Say, hey! Do you want to say hi to her? Say hi!"

Emma gurgles happily.

Down in the lobby, we meet Alexander, a 23-year-old who’s enlisted in the Army National Guard. He works at the Ravenna Arsenal as a mechanic. He’s staying in the hospital’s burn unit.

"What dog doesn't like behind the ears," Alexander says, giving the dog a good scratch.

This is Alexander's first time meeting a dog in the hospital.

"It's nice, because a lot of people have dogs at home. And they come here, and then they're away from them," he says. "And just having some kind of dog here — it may not be yours, but it's super exciting to see one when you're away from home, especially when they're so nice and so sweet."

What makes a 'good dog'

Nice and sweet — that's exactly what the program is looking for. Every breed is eligible, and a range of dogs have participated, including Rottweilers. Whatever size or breed, it's important for the dog to be comfortable doing this work, says Colleen Dell, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.

"We have to make sure that those dogs going into the hospital really like their job, because if they don't, it's not fair to them and they're not going to be effective," Dell says.

In a clinical trial that was published in PLOS One, Dell and co-authors studied 200 people in the emergency room. Half visited with a therapy dog for ten minutes. Half didn't. Before and after the patients interacted with the dog, the researchers used the Edmonton Symptom Assessment System to measure the patients' pain, anxiety, depression, and sense of well-being. Another group of patients was also observed: a control group, who didn't interact with the dog.

"What we found was the people who pet the dog had a clinically significant decrease in the amount of pain that they were feeling, and then also a decrease in their anxiety and depression," Dell says.

To volunteer at Akron Children's, a dog must be registered with a hospital-approved therapy dog organization: Pet Partners, The Bright and Beautiful, or Therapy Dog International. The dog must be over a year old, well-socialized and know basic commands.

"They're testing temperament. They're testing basic obedience. They're making sure that the dog isn't reactive, [and] that there's no issues with loud noises or clumsy petting," says Sawyer, the volunteer recruiter at Akron Children's. "There is a lot to it, but once you are there, it's so worth it."

For this dog, at least, it seems to be a great gig.

"I know, time for your treat now," Bussey tells Katarina, settling down in a quieter room. "She knows at the end of her day, she gets them."

She laughs.

"Goofy girl. Yes, you goofy girl."

Corrected: October 4, 2023 at 1:50 PM EDT
This article has been corrected to clarify an error made during the editing process that a particular quote was made by the patient Alexander.
Jeanette Beebe is a freelance reporter for The Ohio Newsroom.