Paws at Play: St. Jude welcomes furry, four-legged colleagues

September 12, 2019

Puggle shares a moment with his handlers Ashley Carr and Brittany Reed of Child Life.

Puggle shares a moment with his handlers Ashley Carr and Brittany Reed of Child Life.

Lying on the cool concrete floor of the large classroom, canine pals Huckleberry and Puggle rest in adjacent enclosures unaware of the growing excitement on the other side of the classroom door.

Four St. Jude Child Life specialists eagerly wait outside the door to meet their furry new co-workers. Child Life Specialist Brittany Reed grabs quick peeks through the gap in the door as staff members from the Canine Assistants service dog school enter and exit the room to prepare for the first day of camp.

“I see dogs,” Reed says as she spies two dogs in the corner of the room before the door swings shut. Her colleagues—Ashley Carr, Katie Greer and Shandra Taylor—hang onto every word as they swap guesses about what type of dogs they will take back to the hospital. The big reveal will create a joyful and tear-filled introduction and launch a program that will enhance the hospital experience for St. Jude patients.

Bag of Tricks

Children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases spend lots of time coming and going to appointments, undergoing procedures or staying in inpatient rooms. That familiarity doesn’t always translate to comfort with their surroundings. Things like MRI scans, taking medications or the insertion of chemotherapy ports can cause anxiety.

Enter the Child Life team, which is always seeking creative ways to help patients cope. Taylor, who is assigned to Diagnostic Imaging, carries a “distraction bag” to relax patients preparing for MRI scans or other imaging procedures. The bag includes toy spheres, puppets and other distraction techniques, but these aren’t foolproof.

Reed has her own methods with patients on the Solid Tumor/Neuro-Oncology inpatient unit—light spinners, tablets, interactive books—but some patients remain stressed and fearful of what’s to come.

Paws at Play

To add another tool to their arsenal, Reed used her years of research into hospital dog programs and teamed with her Child Life colleagues and the hospital’s Patient and Family Experience Office to explore the possibility of bringing a hospital dog program to St. Jude. The group obtained support from hospital administration—St. Jude President and CEO James R. Downing, MD, is a huge fan of dogs and often shares photos of his own pets at employee events. After providing detailed studies on the potential benefits, the program was approved earlier this year.

Because many St. Jude patients have weakened immune systems, departments teamed up to create new policies for the program, which will be called St. Jude Paws at Play. While the dogs will be a fun, new addition to the hospital, they will also help St. Jude accomplish significant clinical goals. One of those goals is to help reduce the use of anesthesia in patients undergoing scans.

“I am most excited to see the powerful effect a dog will have on our patients,” Reed says. “We hope to provide emotional support and do things like motivating children to get out of bed and walk after surgeries or helping to prepare patients for surgeries by helping with non-sedated scans.”

Child Life Specialist Katie Greer works with Huckleberry during the camp.

Child Life Specialist Katie Greer works with Huckleberry during the camp.

The Right Match

During the exploration process, Child Life worked with the Canine Assistants school in Milton, Georgia. Since its founding in 1991 by Jennifer Arnold, author of several successful books about the bond-based approach to educating dogs, Canine Assistants has placed hundreds of service and companion dogs.

Karen Casto, director of the organization’s hospital initiative, visited St. Jude in June to meet with the Child Life team who would serve as the dogs’ handlers and to assess the hospital’s facilities.

“Dogs have personalities just like people, so the whole goal of the visit was to match the right dog with the right patient population and the right handlers,” Casto says.

Using that information, Casto returned to Georgia to determine which dogs would be the best fit for St. Jude. The mystery about the dogs’ names, litter and gender lingered until the Child Life team made the trip to Georgia during the second week of September.

A week before the trip, Child Life received several email clues about the dogs’ names, and they brought their best guesses with them to the instruction facility September 9.

Homeward Bound

The Canine Assistants facility is located on a 16-acre farm north of Atlanta. Staff members breed, teach and place service dogs, who begin receiving instruction as early as 4 days old.

A dog’s time at the farm culminates in a graduation camp, a weeklong instruction where multiple recipients—both individuals and hospital teams—learn more about building bonds with the animals and finding ways to keep the dogs safe and happy so they can do their best work. The handlers shadowed another dog handler at a local children’s hospital and later in the week took their dogs on public outings to the mall and a department store.

“These dogs are meant to be a half of a whole,” Arnold says.

Once the Child Life team entered the classroom on Day 1 of camp, they noticed eight dogs in the classroom. Dogs are named according to litters, which have various themes ranging from foods to animals to outer space. The St. Jude team submitted their guesses. Huckleberry (from the Men in Literature litter) was correctly identified by the team. Then Casto revealed the two newest St. Jude employees and united the teams.

“There was a flood of so many emotions,” says Taylor, Huckleberry’s primary handler. “I’m looking forward to seeing our bond grow and seeing how he can work with patients and families.”

Reed will serve as primary handler for Puggle, a male golden retriever whose litter theme was “Animal Baby Names.” Carr will be Puggle’s secondary handler, and Greer will serve as secondary handler for Huckleberry, a male goldendoodle. Not only will the dogs work with the Child Life team, but they will also live with the primary handlers. Special accommodations have been made for the dogs in the teams’ offices, where they will take plenty of breaks between patient interactions.

First, Huckleberry and Puggle will acclimate to St. Jude before taking their place as important members of the clinical team. You can follow their adventures on Instagram @stjudepaws.

“There is just something magical about how a dog can lift your spirits and brighten your day,” Reed says. “We’re looking forward to what they bring to the patient experience at St. Jude.”

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