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Puggle encourages Shari Capers, senior vice president of Strategic Planning and Decision Support, to take a break from her work in the Incident Command Center. Photo from early March 2020.

When Times Are ‘Ruff’

Child life specialists and specially trained dogs find
new ways to reach patients during the COVID-19 crisis.

By Tiffany Derrick

How do you provide care when you can’t physically see patients?

That’s the question facing therapy dogs Puggle and Huckleberry and their handlers, Brittany Reed and Shandra Taylor, child life specialists at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The quartet, plus two other handlers, make up the Paws at Play program. The initiative, which launched last year, uses trained service dogs to help patients cope with their illness, symptoms, pain and anxiety.

From the earliest appearance of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., St. Jude began implementing new policies and procedures to protect patients, their families and staff. Many employees were asked to work from home to reduce the chances of bringing the virus onto the hospital campus.

St. Jude staff explored how to provide telehealth options for patient families. Reed, Taylor and their canine companions shifted from interacting with patients in person to connecting with them virtually.

Shandra Taylor, child life specialist, and Huckleberry support patient families and staff via teleconferences.

Shandra Taylor, child life specialist, and Huckleberry support patient families and staff via teleconferences.

“I think this has been an important time for us to evaluate how we provide care,” Reed says. “Being at home has given us the flexibility to meet with patients whenever they need us. Having a virtual option so patients can still interact with Puggle has been amazing. I love being able to see patients’ faces and read their reactions during our sessions.”

Although Puggle and Huckleberry are still seeing patients virtually, they recently began a rotating schedule that allows them to visit campus more frequently.

“It has been helpful to have this time to re-orient the dogs back to being in the hospital setting,” Taylor says. “We’re hoping to use the dogs for staff support as they settle back into their roles.”


When he’s not seeing patients via telehealth, Huckleberry enjoys riding in the car to pick up his Starbucks puppuccino. “He is so proud to be an employee at St. Jude and is thankful that he gets to work alongside such an amazing group of people,” says his handler, Shandra Taylor.

The COVID commute

The changes haven’t been easy. One of the main challenges to navigate was how to maintain the dogs’ daily schedules at home. Both handlers have worked to preserve their canine companions’ skills, while also adding new ones.

“I’ve tried to keep Huckleberry’s routine as close to normal as possible,” Taylor says. “We wake up at the same time every morning and even get in the car and drive around, so he feels like he’s going to work. Although he misses being on campus and seeing all our patients, he has enjoyed the extra outside time.”

Reed and Taylor agree that supporting the staff at St. Jude has also been a priority.

“Huckleberry is really perceptive. Before we began working from home, I could tell he noticed the heightened stress levels,” Taylor says. “He approached staff members more eagerly and was more snuggly with them than normal. It was a small thing that he could do to help, but I saw how much it brightened each person’s day.”

In the Incident Command Center, Puggle shares a quiet moment with Diane McGarry

In the Incident Command Center, Puggle shares a quiet moment with Diane McGarry of Patient Experience during a stressful day. “Puggle is such a grounding presence no matter what the world looks like,” says Puggle’s handler, Brittany Reed.

Pawsitively pup-ular

“Everyone at St. Jude is doing the best they can to ensure our patients and staff remain safe,” Reed says. “I love that Puggle can provide joy to someone who may be feeling overwhelmed. It’s been so special watching how people light up when he walks in and seeing all of this through his lens.”

Reed and Taylor credit their furry coworkers for helping them stay positive during the crisis.

“Puggle is such a grounding presence no matter what the world looks like,” Reed says. “I was worried about how he would handle the changes, but he has been great. I’ve loved having these special moments with him and watching him grow and learn new skills.”

Puggle teleconference with his littermates for National Siblings Day

Puggle reconnects with his littermates during a videoconference.

A litter networking

For National Siblings Day, Puggle and some of his siblings—now at other hospitals across the country—participated in a videoconference with one another.

“It was incredible to connect with them,” Reed says. “Puggle was a ham the whole time.”

“It’s important to focus on positive things, and Huckleberry has definitely helped,” Taylor says. “Before, feeling successful was working together to have a great in-person patient experience. But now, it’s been getting feedback when I send a cute picture of him to coworkers or when something funny gets posted on the St. Jude Paws Instagram account. Having to think outside the box, but still having those moments of connection with patients and staff, has been really important.”

This article appears in the Autumn 2020 edition of Promise.