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About Sickkids
About SickKids

August 26, 2016

Every dog has its day! Let’s celebrate the therapy dogs at SickKids

By Gemma Villanueva

August 26 marks National Dog Day, where we show our appreciation for family dogs and dogs who work selflessly to keep us safe and bring comfort. At The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), there are some four-legged furry friends who help children during their hospital experience. Through the PetSmart Paws (Pets at Work) for Hope program, certified therapy dogs drop in for one-on-one visits. The dogs go to various inpatient clinics, ambulatory clinics and areas of care. For patients in isolation, they can tune in to watch Channel 41 when therapy dogs make guest appearances during Story Time in the Children’s Library.

There's Ozzie, a mild-mannered basset hound, who visits SickKids with his owner-handler, Sheryl Erenberg. One day, they were in the Diabetes Clinic where Ozzie was sitting and playing with outpatients. A little boy approached the duo and asked: “Which one of you has diabetes?” Erenberg chuckles as she remembers this story.

“Kids and parents feel calm and comfortable with him, because he is low energy and approachable,” she says, adding that staff members also break out into smiles when they see the short-legged dog.  

Photo of therapy dog Ozzie
Ozzie, 6, enjoys napping and attending Story Time with the kids in the Family Centre.

Ozzie and Erenberg form one of 16 canine comfort teams, or PAWS teams, who bring lots of cheer to patients, families and staff. The PAWS teams connect with the hospital through St. John Ambulance and Therapeutic Paws of Canada after passing formal assessments. The dogs’ services are free of charge, thanks to generous support from PetSmart. One more team, which includes a retriever, was recently accepted into the program and will soon be making the rounds!

With Ozzie’s friendly disposition, Erenberg knew she wanted to sign him up as a therapy dog. They started off visiting a seniors’ care facility. Ozzie thought it was a great gig, because he could jump on the loveseat with the residents and watch TV. He then earned his child-friendly certification, making it possible to visit SickKids. “He loves working with children. Once they give him a belly rub or snuggle, they’re hooked.”

Sometimes, it takes a while for Ozzie to trot over to his next appointment during his shift. A wagon was offered to transport him around. But Erenberg has a unique incentive: Ozzie will chase after any cookies thrown in his direction.

Rachel Newson, Human Resources Associate in Volunteer Resources at SickKids, says the therapy dogs can be an important part of the recovery process.  

“They are a great distraction for our patients from their regular hospital routine, and provide fun and calming care.”

Emma, 11, is a SickKids kid who received daily visits from a therapy dog during her hospital stay. She described that experience as “the therapy doctors can’t provide.”

“For patients, it is important to get an opportunity to relax and visit with a therapy dog,” says Newson. “It gives them something to look forward to.”

Alexis Shinewald is a Child Life Specialist in SickKids’ Child Life department, which aims to promote a positive hospital experience for children and teens through therapeutic play. She says therapy dogs provide a sense of normalcy for patients and families while they’re coping with hospitalization.

"Therapy dogs change the whole feel of the floor and lift everyone’s spirits," she says. “It’s a pretty magical experience – all of the smiles come out."

She says the visits are especially meaningful for tweens and teens at SickKids, because they might not have the opportunity to venture off their unit to participate in the Child Life’s events and programming.

About 18 years ago, Shinewald helped introduce the pet therapy program into the ambulatory clinics and immunocompromised areas. She brought her own certified therapy dog, Charlee, a chocolate brown standard poodle.

“I saw how my dog brought so much joy to people. Charlee used to cry in the car on the way to SickKids, because she was so excited when I told her, ‘Do you want to go to work?’”

Susan Behan is another longtime volunteer of the PAWS program. First, she brought Buck, her Weimeraner. He often worked with oncology patients. If a patient’s blood count was OK that day, they could spend some time off the unit with the therapy dog. A mattress was placed on the floor of a nearby conference room, so that Buck could sit with patients. For seven years, he visited various units in the hospital.

Photo of therapy dog Emma
Emma, 12, is a Weimeraner. For the past nine years, she has been volunteering at SickKids with her owner-handler, Susan Behan.

Behan would return to the PAWS program with Emma, another Weimeraner she had adopted. For the past nine years, the team has visited clinics across the hospital. Emma is the first therapy dog to assist with physiotherapy. During sessions, she works alongside the health-care provider and acts as a reward, non-pharmacological pain relief and a motivational source for patients. For example, she will crawl through a play tunnel so that the patient will follow along. She has encouraged patients to take their first steps after surgery, because they like holding her leash and walking with her. Emma also has a collar decorated with bits of Velcro, laces and buttons for the patient to fasten and unfasten.

“I’ve got a beautiful dog and want to share her with others,” says Behan of Emma, who has distinctive gray fur and striking eyes. “It’s rewarding to see people’s smiles and the progress made by patients in their rehabilitation with Emma’s help.”

Thank you to all of our canine friends for your hard work and bringing happiness to SickKids – you’re all a special breed of volunteer!