It’s the early afternoon at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and there’s something going around. Symptoms vary, but commonly, patients have reported experiencing uncontrollable smiles or a sudden urge to snuggle. With it come unexpected sounds for a hospital: The beeping of vitals being monitored is drowned out by the jangling of a collar or a playful bark. The dogs are here, and the kids are loving it.
The Pet Friend program at Children’s was started in 1985 by a local veterinarian, and it has been providing four-legged visitors to patients ever since. “It’s amazing, the transformation that you see with a patient who’s been having a rough day. Their whole attitude changes when a dog visits. For the kids who don’t have a lot of visitors, it helps a lot with loneliness, too,” says Lindsay Bromberg, coordinator of the Pet Friend program since 2009.
“Right now, we have about 60 dogs that visit,” Lindsay says. “They can go to inpatient areas where they’re visiting patients who are sleeping over at the hospital. Dogs visit children in most departments, from hematology to oncology, same-day surgery, and radiology.”
The Pet Friend program also sends dogs to the Ronald McDonald House, which is attached to the hospital, or down the street to the Mario Lemieux Children’s Home to visit children in the rehab unit. Wherever they go, the dogs are always welcomed with big smiles and open arms.
“We’ve had patients say it’s the best part of their day,” Lindsay says.
Children’s takes great care in everything it does, and the Pet Friend program is no exception. The program is so popular that it doesn’t have space in the schedule to accept more dogs. But when a spot opens, there’s an extensive evaluation process that a potential volunteer and their dog have to pass before they become an official Pet Friend volunteer.
Dog and handler have to pass a series of tests, starting with a simple behavior evaluation. After many more steps, you may graduate to the in-hospital evaluation.
“How do they deal with big carts being rolled by with oxygen tanks and staff members coming up to the dogs to pet them?” Lindsay asks. “This isn’t a patient visit yet. It’s just for staff and visitors really.”
Pass that, and a volunteer is on to their first patient visit, guided by a coordinator who offers pointers.
David Anderson, along with his wife, Marci Anderson, runs Steel City Greyhounds, which is on a regular rotation with Children’s to bring their rescued Spanish greyhounds to visit patients. David says they test their dogs with the kids in mind, “What would a 4-year-old do to a dog? The test is not so much about obedience but tolerance. We pull their tails, tackle them, lay them on their backs, grab their ears,” David says.
If they don’t react, they can move on to the evaluation at Children’s.
One of the greyhounds, Lulu, is a special case. Lulu has only three legs, but she can get around just as well as the other dogs, which means she’ll be specifically requested when there’s a patient who has lost a limb.
“So we bring Lulu in, and the kids can rub where her leg was, and they get to see that she got better and can still walk,” Marci says, noting that Lulu helps them see that their condition doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.
Back at Children’s, you start to see even more benefits to having Pet Friends around. Lindsay says that, for the kids who are starting to get up and moving again after surgery, the dogs serve as an incentive.
“It’s a fun way for them to do physical therapy. Instead of the typical routine, they get to walk the dogs around,” she said.
Not surprisingly, patients aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the calming effects of dogs. Doctors have started coordinating with Pet Friends to have dogs come to provide relaxation in their resident meetings and help morale.
“You’ll notice too, in places like the intensive care units, the staff there are bombarded with a lot of heavy things, and the dogs help their days, too,” Lindsay said.