Five-year-old Lillie Polston sat on her bed in her hospital room at Kentucky Children’s Hospital with her sister, Emma.
Then Rachel Wallace and her toy poodle, Bella, walked into the room looking to play. Bella is a therapy dog who visits Kentucky Children’s Hospital once a week. Lillie’s eyes lit up as the dog entered the room, got up on the bed and curled up next to Lillie waiting to be petted.
“It’s great because she is so little. If the patients want they can put a towel down in the bed and Bella can actually get up in the bed and cuddle with them,” Wallace said. “She’s like a little stuffed animal, and she’s the only one who can do that because she is so little.”
Bella comes to the hospital every Thursday evening with Wallace unless one of the two is sick or they are on vacation. Bella is one of five therapy dogs who visit the hospital weekly either on Sunday afternoon, Tuesday afternoon or Thursday evening.
“We have kept the therapy program going since its inception because it has been a valuable program,” Judi Martin, child life coordinator at Kentucky Children’s Hospital and director of the hospital’s therapy dogs program, said. “The reason it’s valuable is that a lot of kids miss their animals from home. It also gives them a sense of normalcy, because normally you would see animals if you were out and about and not stuck in a hospital. It kind of humanizes the hospital environment.”
Three years ago, Wallace attended a Sunday service at Southland Christian Church in Lexington where she discovered that the church’s animal ministry program had invited Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer organization responsible for regulating, testing and registering therapy dogs, to Lexington. She said that Bella had always made her day and that she wanted to share her with children who could use her love as well.
Formerly of the UK Department of Pediatrics, Wallace had heard about the therapy dogs program at the children’s hospital and asked her former colleagues at UK if they were in need of a therapy dog. They told her that Bella would be a perfect therapy dog because of her size. All of the other dogs that visited the children’s hospital were larger breeds, making them more difficult to play with in a hospital room.
“There are other therapy dogs, but they are all larger breeds. So they said they’d love to have Bella,” Wallace said.
Wallace returned to her church with Bella, and she was certified by the volunteer organization. According to its website, Therapy Dogs International will certify a dog as a therapy dog that is a minimum of one year of age and has a sound temperament. “Each dog must pass a temperament evaluation for suitability to become a Therapy Dog, which includes the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. The test will also include the evaluation of the dog’s behavior around people with the use of some type of service equipment (wheelchairs, crutches, etc.).” Certified dogs require an annual health evaluation by a licensed veterinarian.
In addition to Therapy Dogs International, the children’s hospital also uses therapy dogs certified by Therapy Dogs Inc. as well as Love on a Leash. Both organizations have almost identical requirements for certification to Therapy Dogs International, including a valid health form through a licensed veterinarian, behavioral guidelines and cleanliness guidelines.
Volunteer owners must also pass through a volunteer orientation provided by UK hospitals to be registered volunteers in the hospital. This orientation requires a background check and a health screening.
Patients must also be cleared to receive visits from therapy dogs. Doctors and nurses within the children’s hospital must check that a patient does not have any immune depression or other medical complications that could be affected by the dogs. They also must check whether a child would be afraid of the dog or if anyone in the room has dog allergies.
Patients who are cleared are also given the choice to accept or decline a visit from a therapy dog.
Once a dog and its owner are cleared to take part in the program, they then choose a day and time that they can visit every week and spend two to three hours visiting every patient that is allowed to receive visits from a therapy dog and has accepted a visit.
“We go from room to room and spend about five to 10 minutes in each patient’s room that wants to see the dog, and the parents will say things like ‘She hadn’t smiled in three days until Bella came in’ or if the kids get up out of the bed or sit up or moves, the parents say ‘Oh my gosh, we have been trying to get her to walk’ and the first time they have gotten her to walk is that she wanted to walk Bella around the hospital room,” Wallace said.
Martin said that the dogs not only provide relief and joy to the children but also to their parents and families, who must cope with the illness of the child. The dogs also provide an outlet to the hospital’s staff.
“It calms the atmosphere when you see a dog and are petting a dog,” Martin said. “That calming effect, that relaxing effect, is what dogs do for our patients, their families, and our staff.”
To help make visits by the dogs more therapeutic, dog owners are not permitted to ask the children about their medical condition, prognosis, treatments or other things of that nature. Instead, Wallace said, dog owners ask the children about any pets they have at home, where they are from, where they went to school and what activities they took part in or what they are interested in. This provides the patients with an escape from the difficult treatment processes that many of the patients are undergoing.
“It’s just nice for the patients to have even 10 minutes a day when someone is there literally to see them,” Wallace said. “Because they are a 10-year-old boy that likes dogs, we are there to see them. It’s a really cool thing.”
UK has reached its limit of therapy dogs participating in the program due to time or space restrictions. But Martin encourages dog owners who feel their dogs would make a good therapy pet to have their dog certified because of the wealth of local organizations that also utilize therapy dogs.
The therapy dogs program began at UK in 1997 under the direction of Martin. The program has begun to spread to other area hospital and care facilities.
Earlier this year, Central Baptist Hospital in Lexington began inviting dogs certified through Love on a Leash to visit select parts of the hospital including the antepartum unit, according to John Walker, a representative of Volunteer Services at the hospital. The hospital has four dogs that visit regularly, two every Wednesday and two every Saturday. After Labor Day, the hospital hopes to expand its dog therapy program to other hospital units and to bring in more dogs on a regular basis.
Richmond Place, a senior living community, and Moberly Manor, a nursing home within Lexington’s Sayre Christian Village, also use therapy dogs certified by Therapy Dogs Inc., according to Karen Bays, a Therapy Dogs Inc. representative who certifies dogs locally in Lexington.
Bays also said that the organization is involved with the Pets Are Loving Servants Ministry at Crossroads Christian Church in Georgetown. This fall, the church hopes to include therapy dogs in an after-school reading program for inner-city youth in which children can practice their reading by reading to the dogs.
The benefit of the program extends beyond children in hospitals or children learning to read.
“It’s unbelievable that all I’m doing is taking my dog to a hospital because it’s fun for us,” Wallace said. “She gets petted on for three hours so we get to interact with patients, which is very fun for us…The happiness, the emotional help that it brings and the normalcy that it brings to these families is really incredible.”
Video by Ben Cannon