The new St. Jude service dogs—Puggle and Huckleberry—are ready to make new friends as they walk the hospital halls and visit patient rooms. It’s the work they’ve been preparing to do since they were 4 days old.
Through the new St. Jude Paws at Play program, the dogs will assist their human handlers in the Child Life program to help patients cope with the everyday challenges of treatment, reduce stress and provide social interaction.
The doggy duo comes to St. Jude from the Canine Assistants service dog school in Milton, Georgia. Karen Casto, director of the organization’s hospital initiative, said Puggle and Huckleberry are a perfect fit for St. Jude.
“They are both super sweet and kind of intuitive about what people need and who needs them,” she said. “We look for dogs that can handle the hospital environment and want to make all these wonderful new friends. That’s why they were chosen.”
The school’s nursery team begins working with dogs in the first week of their lives—introducing challenging but pleasant experiences to teach the dogs adaptability and comfort. The curriculum also includes walking on different textures and navigating small agility equipment.
Once they get their puppy shots at 7 weeks of age, the dogs are taken out in public for exposure to many types of people as well as locales, such as restaurants, malls and movie theaters.
Teaching ramps up for the dogs at 14 weeks of age, as more detailed instruction is introduced. Play time is an important part of the process, and the dogs enjoy a good amount of group interaction.
Puggle and Huckleberry have visited patients in local Atlanta hospitals to become comfortable in the clinical environment. The feedback is always the same.
“People just love them,” Casto said. “Last week I got an email that said, ‘Huckleberry is just the sweetest.’ With Puggle, he is so gentle, but he is so big, so he is like a big teddy bear.”
Canine Assistants instructor Darlene Perales started working with the dogs within the last year. She’s enjoyed seeing each dog become more comfortable in his own fur.
“Puggle loves to be with people. He chooses to be with people over dogs, and he wants to make you happy,” she said. “Huckleberry is a fun-loving dog. He wants everybody to play with him. Everybody in the room lights up when they see his personality.”
In the last few weeks, instructors have worked with Puggle and Huckleberry to hone their skills to prepare them for the graduation camp when they met their handlers. The weeklong camp focuses on establishing a bond between handlers and dogs. Instructor Emily Brna worked with Puggle and Huckleberry from 14 weeks through graduation.
“We want to give the handlers all the information they need so that they can develop that bond,” Brna said. “We want them to be a team with the dog, using responses from the dog and giving the dog feedback so that they’re moving as a team through the world.”
Follow Puggle and Huckleberry on Instagram @stjudepaws.