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Healthy Balance

Pet Therapy Dogs: The Fluffy, Furry, Tail-Wagging Side of Medicine

A teenage girl squeals in delight as she gazes down at Abbey, a red and white Pembroke Welsh corgi. With her mother’s help, the girl gives the eager and thankful dog some treats.

The girl is Gracie, a 14-year-old pediatric patient at UVA’s Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center.

Gracie watches as Abbey performs a stop, drop and roll trick for her.

Then Shaker, a 10-year-old Doberman pinscher, hops onto an exercise table where Gracie sits waiting. Gently, he eases up next to her and sniffs. Shaker is calm. Gracie smiles. With her mother’s instructions, Gracie lifts her hand to pet the quiet dog. First her right hand, then her left.

Shaker and Abbey are just two of UVA’s 10 pet therapy dogs. The dogs visit our pediatric patients at KCRC and in the hospital, and they’ll even visit adult patients by request.  They are ambassadors, helping to soothe the children and make sometimes scary and stressful medical visits and hospital stays a little more normal.

Laurie Hanahan, Shaker’s owner and fellow hospital volunteer, says her dog loves visiting pediatric patients. “He’ll work the crowd,” she says.

Shaker, a Doberman, is a UVA pet therapy dog at KCRC
Shaker’s pet therapy dog trading card (click for larger image)

The Doberman, who considers cats his friends, even has a way of calming adults who might be a little scared of his breed. He nuzzles up to everyone he meets, making sure to get plenty of love and attention.

“Seeing the effect your dog has on a patient is so rewarding,” Hanahan says.

Karen Johnson, RN, the owner of Abbey the corgi, works at KCRC in pediatric orthopaedics. She’s been a pet therapy volunteer for almost 20 years, as long as UVA has had the program.

Johnson knows the difference the dogs make for young patients and their families. “The parents will give the dog a hug and take a couple of deep breaths because they’ve had a rough day or a rough drive over here,” she says.

Gracie’s mom, Elizabeth Hazelton of Richmond, says her daughter, who is in a wheelchair and has limited mobility, looks forward to seeing the pet therapy dogs and playing with them on her visits to KCRC.

“It makes it more enjoyable, more normal, and it makes Gracie happy,” she says. “She relaxes more.”

Hanahan, too, has witnessed the love her dog gives to everyone who meets him. She and Shaker visited one little girl who couldn’t move her hands. Shaker stuck his head under the girl’s arm so she could “pet” him.

The dogs are celebrities at UVA and the subjects of many photo-taking sessions. The staff thought trading cards would be a fun way to create special keepsakes for the kids. Patients can collect all of the cards, which include details about each dog’s hobbies, favorite treats and more. Abbey and Shaker are featured, along with a golden retriever, a Bernese mountain dog, a Newfoundland and others.

Want to Volunteer With Your Dog?

Abbey, a corgi, is a UVA pet therapy dog at KCRC
Abbey’s pet therapy dog trading card (click for larger image)

It takes a very special dog – and a special human – to volunteer at UVA.

Pet therapy dogs need the right temperament because kids will pull and tug at them, testing their patience and demeanor, says Kim Garofalo, the volunteer coordinator for UVA Children’s Hospital.

Dogs must:

Human dog handlers need:

  • An interview
  • Background checks and reference checks
  • Medical clearance and TB tests
  • Orientation and training
  • And more

“It’s a commitment. It sounds so fun, but it’s also a lot of work,” says Garofalo.

Still think you and your dog have what it takes? Call Volunteer Services at 434.924.5251.

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