May

Pet therapy dogs are kids’ best friends at Batson Children’s Hospital

Published on Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Media Contact: Annie Oeth at 601-984-1122 or aoeth@umc.edu.

Published on May 31, 2017

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Under the Rainbow, the semi-annual magazine for Batson Children's Hospital/Children's of Mississippi. A PDF of that issue can be found here.

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Lyla, Honey and Uno, the canine pet therapy team at Batson Children's Hospital, help patients forget about being ill or injured for a while. When these dogs, ranging from a Shetland sheepdog to a Labrador-chow mix, stop in, they offer children the healing power of petting a dog.

That power, it turns out, is fairly potent. The simple act of petting a dog can lower stress and blood pressure and help humans from children to adults make connections among each other as well as with the canine.

Alan Beck, director of the Center of the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, said even a brief visit with a therapy dog can have an effect on young patients.

“Even a short interaction a dog has a relaxation response,” Beck said. “We demonstrated a small but consistent decrease in blood pressure, and facial expressions indicated relaxed features. The effect is probably stimulated for two reasons. We are genetically coded to find reward with contact - gentle touch among welcomed partners lowers blood pressure - and we view dogs as members of the family.”

Furry friends such as Lyla, a 7-year-old Shetland sheepdog, can be a distraction for kids who need something to take their minds off being in the hospital. “Anything that helps you focus your attention on the present relaxes,” Beck said.

Kamiya Wofford of Cedar Bluff greets Lyla, a pet therapy dog, at a Batson Children's Hospital fall festival Oct. 31, 2016.
Kamiya Wofford of Cedar Bluff greets Lyla, a pet therapy dog, at a Batson Children's Hospital fall festival Oct. 31, 2016.

It worked for Maggie Jim of Philadelphia, a shy 4-year-old who broke into a smile at the sight of Lyla, who is an “honorary chaplain” for her pet therapy visits at UMMC's adult hospital as well. Soon Maggie was petting the friendly dog and telling stories of her own dog back home.

“This is why we do this,” said Susan Raphael of Madison, who has brought therapy dogs to hospital patients in the Jackson area for 14 years, starting with another Shetland sheepdog, Molly. She now brings Lyla, who she describes as “gentle and ladylike.”

Raphael's Shetland sheepdog puppy, Piper, “has a completely different personality,” she said. “We call her 'Hyper Piper.'” Plans are for playful Piper to get certification as a pet therapy dog when she grows up.

 

Hannah Abercrombie of McHenry visits with pet therapy dog Honey at Batson Children's Hospital.
Hannah Abercrombie of McHenry visits with pet therapy dog Honey at Batson Children's Hospital.

Alvin and Nancy Youngblood of Byram bring Honey to Batson each month. An impeccably groomed red poodle who loves to snack on Cheerios and Lucky Charms, Honey always gets oohs and ahhs from those who meet her.

“We love coming,” said Nancy Youngblood. “We get more out of the visits than the children do.”

That's saying quite a bit, as patients find time spent petting and playing with Honey as sweet as her name.

After seeing how much her mother enjoyed pet therapy while a nursing home resident, “I knew I wanted to do this,” she said. Nancy Speed of Yazoo County felt the same way as Nancy Youngblood when she heard about pet therapy at a dog owners' event. That her adopted dog, Uno, needed some manners didn't deter her. “This,” said Speed, “could only be from God."

Aubrey Thomas of Columbus and her daughter, Brookelle Perrigin, visit with Uno.
Aubrey Thomas of Columbus and her daughter, Brookelle Perrigin, visit with Uno.

After seeing how much her mother enjoyed pet therapy while a nursing home resident, “I knew I wanted to do this,” she said. Nancy Speed of Yazoo County felt the same way as Nancy Youngblood when she heard about pet therapy at a dog owners' event. That her adopted dog, Uno, needed some manners didn't deter her. “This,” said Speed, “could only be from God.”

Uno got a dose of divine help as a puppy. A Yazoo County pastor, Dr. David White of Black Jack Baptist Church, had found her abandoned by a Dumpster and took her in, but the Labrador Retriever in her showed out in well-meaning rambunctiousness.

The church is across the street from the church cemetery, and the parsonage, Uno's new home, was nearby. “She started dragging home the flower arrangements from the cemetery,” White said.

Then there was the matter of romping into the sanctuary and jumping on churchgoers to greet them with a wagging tail and muddy paws.

Uno, the deacons said, had to go.

“He knew that I love dogs, so he called me,” Speed said.

"Uno is the kindest dog in the world," White said, "but she was more than we could handle. We still visit with her and love her, but visiting patients at Batson Children's Hospital is her calling."

Once the idea of the friendly, energetic Uno becoming a pet therapy dog took hold, the training began. Speed's preferred method of positive reinforcement with treats was a big hit - Uno likes treats very much.

Patients enjoy the now-well-trained Uno, who entertains them by fetching a dumbbell toy as many times as they will throw it.

“The kids just love her,” said Speed. “It doesn't take much to entertain them. They're just happy to pet her, and she's happy to let them.”

“Dogs,” she said, “are wonderful healers."