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Working like a dog: St. Jude Paws at Play celebrates six months of canine care

Memphis, Tennessee, March 16, 2020

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Brittany Reed and Shandra Taylor, the primary handlers for Puggle and Huckleberry of the St. Jude Paws at Play program, reflect on how their daily lives have changed in the six months since the dogs arrived on the hospital’s campus.

By Brittany Reed and Shandra Taylor

Brittany Reed

Puggle’s primary handler

It’s been six months since the St. Jude Paws at Play program officially launched with the arrival of two new furry employees. From the moment Puggle and Huckleberry stepped their paws onto our hospital campus, they have brightened the days of patients, families and employees.

I am Puggle’s primary handler. I am a child life specialist who works with patients in the inpatient Solid Tumor and Neuro-Oncology units. Puggle’s secondary handler is Ashley Carr of Child Life, who works with patients in the Bone Marrow Transplant unit.

How has Puggle changed your workdays at St. Jude?

Puggle and Huckleberry are often referred to as the “most popular employees on our campus.” I feel honored to be walking alongside these VIP employees, who bring joy to all they encounter. I get to witness the work of a fluffy, smart Golden Retriever that makes challenging moments more doable for both staff and patients.

Adding Puggle to the team has helped me hone my time management skills at work. Not only do I have to account for my own role, but I also must factor in enough time for his potty breaks and play time to unwind.

How has Puggle changed your life outside of the hospital?

By adding a new family member, our life outside of work has become quite active and exciting. It is odd to think about life before Puggle because he was an instant match. He has helped his momma create a healthy lifestyle as he is always up for exploring the outdoors. He loves to play soccer with his favorite red ball, enjoys walks along the Mississippi River and loves to snuggle as much as possible. This is how his nickname “Snuggle Puggle” originated.

Our world revolves around this gentle giant. He is the first to greet us morning and night. He brings an instant smile from the simple things he does such as getting his leash to go outside.

Brittany Reed and Puggle

Brittany Reed and Puggle

What has been the most enjoyable thing about working with Puggle?

The most enjoyable part is seeing firsthand the impact they make beyond the human connection. In working with patients and families, Puggle becomes an instant best friend. He has brought so much love and laughter in his role because he meets patients where they are.

As child life specialists, our goal is to normalize the hospital experience, reduce anxiety and fear, and help patients find the fun in being a kid. Puggle is the best sidekick who adds joy, celebrates milestones and supports patients in finding their voice. The best reward is hearing so many families say, “This is the first time my child has smiled in a long time.”

What have been some of Puggle’s breakthrough moments?

I think of their first day at St. Jude when more than 400 employees graciously welcomed them during a special Town Hall meeting just for the dogs. The value and power of dogs to the human experience has been studied for a long time, but the breakthrough moment of adding two four-legged employees to campus was remarkable.

The first patient Puggle saw was a teenage girl who was approaching end-of-life care. He immediately provided a companionship that cannot be put into words. He cuddled next to her in bed and gave her comfort in a grim moment. Their bond grew throughout her journey as she requested Puggle’s presence to see his new tricks or to provide a moment of relief from tough conversations.

Following the patient’s death, her parents requested Puggle’s presence. It was powerful to watch his presence lift their mood and provide the laughter they were seeking in a difficult time.

Shandra Taylor

Huckleberry’s primary handler

As a child life specialist and Huckleberry’s primary handler, I work with patients in Diagnostic Imaging. Huckleberry’s secondary handler is Katie Greer of Child Life.

How has Huckleberry changed your workdays at St. Jude?

Working with Huckleberry has been an adjustment, but it’s been so much fun. The biggest thing has been learning how to prioritize his needs during the day—bathroom breaks, food and naps. It’s fun to see people’s reactions when we pass in the hallway and the joy that he brings patients and staff members. We may get on the elevator and someone will say, “This has made my day.”

Huckleberry is another employee and part of the team in Diagnostic Imaging. He has been well received, and we’re continuing to figure things out and finding a good structure and routine. There have been so many moments when he has provided support for procedures or practiced with patients on the mock MRI scanner.

With Huckleberry close by, they feel empowered and encouraged to do things that maybe they wouldn’t have done before—like do a scan without anesthesia.

How has Huckleberry changed your life outside of the hospital?

We’ve bonded so well that I cannot remember what it was like not having him at home. I just can’t imagine what it would be like without him.

When Huckleberry gets home, he mentally lets loose and relaxes. It’s fun to see the difference between him at work and at home. He loves being at work, but he also loves his downtime and enjoys his weekends.

Shandra Taylor with Huckleberry

Shandra Taylor with Huckleberry

What has been the most enjoyable thing about working with Huckleberry?

I enjoy seeing the kids make a connection with Huckleberry. They really respond to the unconditional love and calming therapy that Huckleberry gives.

As he’s gotten more comfortable in Diagnostic Imaging, his personality has really blossomed. It’s fun to look back at camp when we first met the dogs. I think of those early moments with him and how much more comfortable Huckleberry is now in the hospital environment.

I also enjoy seeing him during playtime with Puggle. Brittany and I are trying to get them more opportunities to hang out and play, and I look forward to those moments.

What have been some of Huckleberry’s breakthrough moments?

One moment really stands out — It was the first time I saw him in action. When Huckleberry first arrived, I was taking things slowly—getting used to moving around with him and mainly focusing on social visits.

One of the first patients we saw was getting a CT scan, which is also called a CAT scan. I had met the patient several times. He was a young boy who often needed anesthesia while undergoing scans. When he saw Huckleberry, there was an immediate connection. With minimal prompting, Huckleberry walked with him into the scan room. The child laid down on the scan table much more than he had ever done before, and he was able to get through his scan without being sedated.

It was the first time I saw how instinctive Huckleberry was with a patient. Huckleberry rested his head on the scan table so the patient could reach out and pet him. He does other things that you just can’t teach; somehow, he just knows. The patient said, “Oh, this isn’t a CAT scan, this is a dog scan.” I thought that line was so funny, so I now I use it with patients.

From left, Child Life specialists Brittany Reed (Puggle) and Shandra Taylor (Huckleberry) help the dogs get employee ID badges on their first day of work last September.

From left, Child Life specialists Brittany Reed (Puggle) and Shandra Taylor (Huckleberry) help the dogs get employee ID badges on their first day of work last September.

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